August 30, 2007

HARRISONBURG—In his weekly “Strategic Interests” column for the World Defense Review, Dr. J. Peter Pham, Director of the Nelson Institute for International and Public Affairs at James Madison University, spotlights São Tomé and Príncipe as a possible exception that stands a good chance of escaping the various “traps” ensnaring most of Africa in vicious cycle of underdevelopment, conflict, and oppression.

Despite dire poverty, Dr. Pham notes that the island nation has an exemplary record for human rights and its citizens enjoy “one of Africa ’s most robust parliamentary democracies, with two presidents and several governments leaving office after free elections. ” Now on the verge of a potential oil boom, the country’s leaders have passed a landmark oil revenue law. However, Dr. Pham warns:

While the prospects for São Tomé and Príncipe are bright, it will still be several years before the country begins to receive any significant revenues. In the meantime, it faces not only the challenges of existing needs, but new ones posed by its potential wealth and those who might seek to move in on it…It is a stretch, to put it diplomatically, to even imagine that São Tomé and Príncipe can maintain even a minimal level of maritime domain awareness, much less to secure, its exclusive economic zone of 142,563 square kilometers, especially when its entire coast guard consists of fifty volunteers and two inflatable Zodiac boats…[Yet] the United States does not maintain a permanent official presence in São Tomé and Príncipe.

However, the article goes on to observe:

Fortunately for U.S. interests, unlike other geostrategically important and resource-rich countries, this absence of an American presence has not resulted in the People’s Republic of China (PRC) filling in the vacuum. As it happens, São Tomé and Príncipe is one of only five African countries (the others are Burkina Faso, The Gambia, Malawi, and Swaziland) to have maintained diplomatic relations with the Republic of China on Taiwan, perhaps not so coincidentally another island nation that has escaped the plagues of the mainland nearby.

A major initiative at malaria eradication, led by Taiwan has, in fact, “reduced the infection rate among children under 9 years of age, the most easily infected age group, from upwards of 35 percent to between 1 and 5 percent. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), malaria as a cause of child mortality in São Tomé and Príncipe is now less than 1 percent, compared with the regional average of 17 percent.

Thus Dr. Pham concludes:

Against the odds, São Tomé and Príncipe may prove to be an African exception: a stable democratic state, aligned with the United States and its allies, managing its wealth transparently and responsibly for the benefit of its citizens. However, the next few years will be critical ones for Santomeans. They’ll need all help they can get to build the institutions for their brighter tomorrow.

To read the full text of Dr. Pham’s article, “São Tomé and Príncipe: An African Exception?” click here.