Abidjan — An army major backed by a small opposition party seized power in a pre-dawn coup in the African island state of Sao Tome and Principe on Wednesday while President Fradique de Menezes was visiting Nigeria.
News reports from the mountainous and densely forested island, 240km west of Gabon said Major Fernando Pereira, the head of the military training school, had seized power and arrested leaders of the country's elected government.
Those detained included Prime Minister Maria das Neves, Defence Minister Fernando Daqua and Rafael Branco, the Minister for Natural Resources, who was responsible for negotiating the development of Sao Tome's large but still untapped offshore oil reserves.
Foreign Minister Mateus Meira Rita, who was in Portugal at the time, told journalists in Lisbon that mercenaries who had once fought in Angola for South Africa's Buffalo Batallion, and leaders of the Christian Democrat Front, a small party with no parliamentary representation, were behind the coup. He called for "the immediate restoration of constitutional order."
The military takeover was accompanied by some gunfire and grenade explosions, but residents said calm returned to the tiny capital Sao Tome a few hours later. Pereira was due to address the nation by radio on Wednesday afternoon to explain the reasons for his coup.
Sao Tome and Principe, which gained independence from Portugal in 1975, is one of several poor African countries on the verge of an oil boom. The twin-island state, which has a population of about 170,000 people, signed an agreement with Nigeria in 2001 to split the revenue from any oil found in their shared offshore waters.
Oil companies including ExxonMobil and Shell hope to produce up to one million barrels per day in 10 years time if exploration drilling confirms their expectations of massive reserves in deep water. Nigeria will get 40 percent of revenues from all oil extracted, while Sao Tome will get 60 percent.
However, Menezes has been accused of corruption in his dealings with oil companies, which are still waiting to hear the results of a tender for exploration and production rights launched earlier this year.
Angola, another oil-rich state with which Sao Tome has close cultural and economic ties, has been eager to share in the expected oil bonanza. It is closely involved with the training of Sao Tome's security forces and the Angolan state oil company Sonangol has acted as an adviser to the Sao Tome government in its negotiations with Nigeria.
The United States has also shown a keen interest in Sao Tome's potential oil wealth and negotiated the establishment of air and naval facilities on Sao Tome island last year.
But for now, Sao Tome and Principe remains a poor country, dependent on cocoa exports, with high unemployment and a per capita income of just $280 a year.
This was the second coup in Sao Tome's 27-history as an independent nation. The country's small army, which numbers less than 1,000 men, seized power briefly in 1995, but returned to barracks after Angola intervened to negotiate a settlement. The country has been a functioning democracy since the end of one-party rule in 1990.
Menezes, a wealthy cocoa exporter, was elected president with 65 percent of the vote in September 2000.
Portugal, France and Nigeria immediately condemned his overthrow. So too did Mozambican President Joaquim Chissano, the current chairman of the African Union.