With a population of only 190,000, São Tomé and Príncipe is the second smallest nation in Africa. Exploitation of oil and increased tourism is attracting new investment which creates job opportunities, but is also increasing inequalities and widening the gap between the majority and the élites, as well as increasing pollution and threatening environmental security. The cumulative effect of these factors and bad governance can lead to dissatisfaction and subsequently low intensity conflict. The window of opportunity that exists at present offers the prospect of lessons from other oil producing and tourism-rich states being put to good use to avoid conflict and ensure an equitable distribution of the wealth to come.
International Alert has been working in São Tomé and Príncipe since 2004 with the Association of São Tomé and Príncipe NGOs (FONG), the media and parliamentarians to strengthen their capacity to respond to issues related to the management of oil revenues. Alert is also working towards the scrutiny of national, regional and international actors and policies and thereby countering the conflict potential of forthcoming oil extraction and promoting good governance.
States around the Gulf of Guinea, including São Tomé and Príncipe, are attracting interest from global oil companies and Western governments. Oil production has not yet started due to the low quality and amount found as well as the global recession, but the people, led to believe in the promises of oil, have been left disappointed. Violence is not endemic in the country’s culture, but frustration has the potential to trigger some level of violence.
However, when production does start, oil is set to provide the government with unprecedented financial resources which, if managed wisely and judiciously, could transform the quality of life of its citizens. Poor management of oil revenues could pose real threats to the stability of this relatively peaceful nation, especially given high expectations from the populace about the financial benefits of oil. Already the money received from the oil bonus is not trickling down to the people.
Alert works to raise awareness and improve the abilities of institutions to scrutinise the behaviour of the government and oil companies. Our engagement with different sectors of civil society organisations and capacity building workshops for journalists and parliamentarians has contributed in raising awareness. A series of training sessions for media professionals have been facilitated by Alert on mass media and society, the ethics of journalism and media law, and more specific courses on oil-related issues such as transparency and scrutiny as well as oil and investigative reporting.
Alert has also conducted public awareness campaigns across the country to increase knowledge and understanding of and spark debate about oil issues with and between citizens. This is a two-way process: NGO activists and government representatives answer questions about oil extraction and listen to and internalise the views of the people.
Alert also concentrates on increasing FONG members’ awareness of the impact of oil. Our work enables NGO activists to press for adherence to international policy, facilitate information flows between the government and the governed and advocate for directing oil revenues towards social development. Since we started work in the country, NGOs have started challenging the government on oil-related issues, asking for disclosure of agreements.
We also work with parliamentarians to increase their capacity to monitor and oversee the activities of the government and oil companies. So far, training has been provided to parliamentary deputies on public finances and budgetary procedures. They are now better able to review government budgets and expenditures.
The self-expressed dearth of capacity, skills or confidence amongst critical sections of society, including the government, parliament, civil society, businesses and the media, to provide the required professional monitoring, scrutiny and oversight poses a real risk. Only 3 civil society organisations exist, and none of them are carrying out peacebuilding work. There is a lack of parliamentary capacity for oil exploration. Alert has contributed significantly to improving the abilities of civil society, media professionals and parliamentarians to serve as a check on government power, so that the benefits from oil revenues are experienced by all.