CNN World News

Tiny nation struggles with democracy


Like many African nations, Sao Tome asks:
What to do with the military?

September 20, 1995
Web posted at: 11:50 a.m. EDT (1550 GMT)

From Correspondent Gary Strieker

SAO TOME, Sao Tome and Principe (CNN) -- It's the annual military day in Sao Tome and Principe (sahw-TOE-may and PRIN-suh-pay"), an occasion with special meaning this year. Almost all of the 600 soldiers in this nation of only 130,000 people march on parade (1.5M QuickTime movie). Only a few weeks ago, these men banded together in a different way: a short-lived military coup.


It was a simple takeover. In the middle of the night, troops advanced on the presidential compound. A few shots were fired. One guard was killed. The insurgents captured President Miguel Trovoada and held him in the military barracks.


But after seven days the crisis was over and the president was back in office. The soldiers had backed down after international condemnation of the coup and mediation by the Angolan government.(92k AIFF sound or 92k WAV sound)

Sao Tome's parliament passed a law promising reforms and granting amnesty for all the military men involved in the coup -- a decision some parliament members said they were forced to take. Fradique de Menezes recalled the moment, "I said, 'My god, we are going to accept something we will probably regret in the future.'"

Presidential Compound

Democracy came only four years ago to Sao Tome and Principe, islands nestled in the Gulf of Guinea notch on the west coast of Africa. It was then that Trovoada won the first free multiparty elections. Before that, under 15 years of Marxist one-party rule, the military rose to power and privilege.

But with democracy, free market reforms and a deepening economic crisis, the military has suffered along with the rest of the population. One of the coup's leaders told CNN he believes in democracy, but politicians here care only for themselves and not for the people.

Presidential Compound

The tensions between the military and the government in this tiny island republic are not unique in Africa. Across the continent, after years of military supremacy, many nations now face the same problem: what to do with the military in a democracy?

In Sao Tome, even government leaders condemning the coup say the military had a right to feel ignored. "What happened on 15th August was because the military was not involved in the democratic system," said Foreign Minister Guilherme Posser da Costa.

But all too often, when the military is involved, it usually gets its way. "They use the gun in order to impose their point of view," de Menezes said. "This is what's impossible for us democratic people in this country to accept."

Many say the solution is to downsize military troops, and most of all, to find a useful unarmed role for soldiers in economic development, such as building roads, bridges and schools. Until that happens, military forces in Sao Tome and elsewhere in Africa will brood in the background, their power a constant threat to new democracies.

The leaders of the coup in Sao Tome said their demands are still not satisfied. But the president maintains there is no money to meet their calls for higher pay and other changes.

In the capital, people see more armed soldiers on the streets. They hear constant rumors about another military takeover happening soon. And they wonder, who's really in charge here?

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Copyright © 1995 Cable News Network, Inc.