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A foiled coup in Sao Tome & Principe underlines a fragility of African states in geopolitical competition

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A coup attempt has been foiled in Sao Tome & Principe after a military barracks in the country’s capital came under attack on Friday, November 25. The attack comes about two months after São Tomé and Príncipe held parliamentary elections, which were won by Trovoada’s Independent Democratic Action (ADI) party. He was sworn in as prime minister earlier this month. The government has alternated several times between the two main parties: the centre-left Movement for the Liberation of São Tomé and Príncipe-Social Democratic Party; and Trovoada’s centre-right Independent Democratic Action (ADI). Both main parties (MLSTP and ADI) support continued relations with China, signaling a likely continuation of significant Chinese investment in the country. Beijing has got interest in the archipelago, as China plans to use Sao Tome and Principe as a strategic transport hub for the superpower.

Known for their political stability, the islands are located west of Angola and southwest of Equatorial Guinea and recently hosted Shell’s unsuccessful Jaca-1 exploration well.

Sao Tome & Principe’s Prime Minister Patrice Trovoada told a local radio station — Radio Somos Todos Primos: “We were targeted by an attempted coup, which began around 00:40 (Greenwich Mean Time) and was completed shortly after 06:00.”

Trovoada said some attackers were detained, while Delfim Neves, a former president of the National Assembly, was arrested. Neves ran in the 2011 presidential election and finished third with 14.36% of the vote. In 2018, Neves became the president of the Democratic Convergence Party. He was elected President of the National Assembly on 22 November 2018. Neves lost his position on November 11 when the new chamber was installed following elections in September, won with an absolute majority by Trovoada’s centre-right Independent Democratic Action (ADI) party.

In 2021 the third-placed candidate in the first round, Delfim das Neves, filed a petition against the result, alleging fraud. His suit was eventually rejected by the Constitutional Tribunal.

STP-Press, the islands’ state news agency, reported yesterday that 12 local military personnel and four Sao Tome citizens were involved in the assault on the barracks, citing Armed Forces’ Chief of Staff Olinto Paquete.

Thus, the operation was ordered by certain personalities from the country in complicity with certain others from within the army.

Trovoada said a key mover behind the operation was opposition leader Arlecio Costa, who he claimed once served in South Africa’s 32 (‘Buffalo’) Battalion, African mercenary group dismantled in 1993 by Pretoria (Namibia). This is the second time that this battalion seeks to carry out a coup d’état in the country, after the one in 2003. That coup was launched against the government of President Fradique de Menezes, and was led by Major Fernando Pereira. The coup leaders claimed that they had tried to overthrow the government to help stop poverty. The coup was led by members of the Christian Democratic Front, (a political party without seats in Parliament) in the region.

Costa was also held in 2009 over accusations of plotting an earlier coup in Sao Tome.

The African Union (AU) condemned the attempted coup, with its president Moussa Faki Mahamat calling it “unacceptable” and a “violation” of the AU’s principles of democracy.

Trovoada said a key mover behind the operation was Arlecio Costa, who he claimed once served in South Africa’s 32 (‘Buffalo’) Battalion, a special forces outfit active in what is now Namibia but which was disbanded in 1993. Costa was also held in 2009 over accusations of plotting an earlier coup in Sao Tome.

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