FG Moves to Restore Civilian Government in Sao Tome

By Charles Ozoemena, Abuja, Vanguard, 18 July 2003

NIGERIA in partnership with other African countries is taking immediate steps to restore Sao Tome and Principe government of President Fradique de Menezes, Vice President Atiku Abubakar said yesterday. International protests against the coup have continued to mount with the United States, the United Nations and Portugal, the island's former colonial master, condemning it.

Neighbouring countries led by Nigeria were the first to ask for the reinstatement of the deposed democratically-elected government. Soldiers over-threw President de Menezes, Wednesday, while he was in Abuja attending the sixth Leon Sullivan Summit.

Vice President Abubakar vowed that Nigeria would restore power to the democratically-elected civilian government in that country. He did not, however, reveal whether Nigeria would apply military might.

Receiving the Ambassador of the Republic of Niger, Moussa Elhadji Ibrahim, in Abuja, the vice president warned the masterminds of the coup d'etat not to tamper with the lives and property of Nigerians resident in Sao Tome. Responding to request made by the Nigerien ambassador that Nigeria should fulfill President Obasanjo's promise to assist his country with fertilizer, Vice President Abubakar said President Obasanjo had approved the request.

Diplomats in the capital of the small West African island state said they were working with civic and religious groups to seek the release of the ministers, who were being held in difficult conditions, according to family members. Major Fernando Pereira, the new strongman in the former Portuguese colony, said on Portuguese radio yesterday that the ministers would be released only after adequate security conditions are in place, possibly last night. It will be responsibility for what could happen to them if we free them now. Some outside opportunists could take advantage of the situation and try to threaten the ministers, he said. The coup-makers arrested most of the 14-member cabinet of Sao Tome shortly after launching the coup in the early hours of Wednesday. Only Foreign Minister Mateus Meira Rita, who was on a visit to Portugal, escaped arrest.

The prime minister, Maria das Neves, was later taken to hospital after suffering a mild heart attack following a shoot-out at her home, and President de Menezes was stranded in Nigeria where he was attending an international forum at the time of the coup. Yesterday, relatives of the detained ministers said male and female cabinet members had all been forced to sleep in one room Wednesday night. Education and Culture Minister, Fernanda Pontifece Bonfim, was reportedly taken ill yesterday morning. We want at the very least to try to obtain the release of the three women ministers, who are finding this situation very difficult to cope with, a diplomat said. Twenty-four hours after the power grab in the country of 140,000 people, the capital, Sao Tome, was calm, with people going about business as usual and the main market functioning normally. The airport remained closed, however, stranding several groups of tourists on the twin-island state.

Meanwhile, Mozambique's President Joaquim Chissano, the current head of the African Union (AU), was scheduled yesterday to join talks with President Olusegun Obasanjo and De Menezes in Abuja. Sao Tome and Principe is located in the oil-rich Gulf of Guinea, off the coast of Nigeria, Africa's largest oil producer, and the two countries are closely linked by a joint oil exploitation pact. The islands, mired in poverty since independence in 1975, sit atop a potential oil bonanza estimated at over a billion barrels of crude. But for now, Sao Tome's average annual income per person is 280 dollars and the country is heavily dependent on foreign aid. An aide to De Menezes said he was in crisis talks in Abuja early yesterday with key members of his entourage. De Menezes met Wednesday with Obasanjo to discuss how to bring back normalcy to that country, a member of the deposed leader's entourage said in Abuja.

De Menezes' spokesman, Guillaume Neto, said he would return home only if his security was assured, dismissing rumours in Sao Tome that De Menezes would be accompanied to Sao Tome by a contingent of Nigerian troops. The return must be voluntary and orderly, Neto said. De Menezes is cool and calm and he believes that the problem in his country could be solved through dialogue. He was trying to solve that problem before coming to Nigeria on Tuesday, Neto added. Meanwhile, the Taiwan Foreign ministry said Taipei was keeping a close eye on the situation in Sao Tome for fear rival China could sabotage the island's diplomatic ties. Sao Tome is one of 27 countries to recognize Taiwan, which Beijing considers part of its territory waiting for reunification by force if necessary. Africa is one of the few battlegrounds where Taiwan and China have engaged in diplomatic tug-of-war for decades.

Meanwhile, the vice president has reiterated the commitment of Nigeria to the bilateral agreement between her and Romania. He made the remark when he received the Romanian Ambassador to Nigeria, Dr. Emil Rapcea, who visited him, assuring that the country would honour the proposed establishment of an agricultural tractor assembly plant and the manufacture of MIG 29 military jets in Nigeria.