Friday, February 20, 2009

Coup d'Etats and other funny going-ons - Part I

Some funny things have been going on in the region in the last few days ...

First, last week security forces arrested a group of c. 40 people here claiming they were planning a coup d'etat. Then in the early hours of Tuesday morning a group of men turned up in two boats in Malabo, the capital of Equatorial Guinea on the island of Bioko and attempted to storm the presidential palace. There ensued a three hour gun battle until the invaders were repulsed. The Equatorial Guinea government claims they were members of the Nigerian Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND - a direct descendant of the Biafran war in 1967-70) who have denied their involvement. Yesterday the Nigerian governnmet did not deny MEND involvement but denied its own involvement,

So first a history lesson ...

Equatorial Guinea gained its independence from Spain in 1967 and Sao Tome e Principe (STP) from Portugal in 1975. Most Portuguese left in 1974-75 but a handful stayed on and when in 1977, the government claimed they had discovered plans for a coup d'etat as part of a larger international plot to topple tht MPLA government in Angola, they were rounded up and briefly imprisoned. On their release some stayed, some returned to Portugal. I was given names last weekend but obviously will not repeat them here

Over the coming years there were largely unsubstantiated rumours of planned coups but in 1978 a body of Angolan armed forces arrived on Sao Tome to assist STP in its defense.

No further "serious" attempts occurred until 1986 when a Santomense, Manauel Afonso Rosario dos Santos, resident in Gabon, had formed a political grouping the "renovated FRNSTP " which joined forces with another exile group to form the UDISTP. Improved relations between the STP and Gabonese presidents led to him being expelled from Gabon and he ended up in Cameroun. His supporters in Gabon were increasingly pressurised by the Gabonese government and, having been refused entry to Cameroun, ended up in Namibia where the apartheid regime offered them the choice of prison or military service in South Africa's crack and clandestine military unit the 32 Battalion (widely known as the "Buffaloes") who were fighting the Nambian independence movement SWAPO in northern Namibia/southern Angola).

In 1988 a group of c. 45 men arrived in small trawlers in ST, led by Rosario dos Santos, and attempted a coup but were quickly rounded up. Rosario dos Santos (now deceased) , who personally led the expedition, was soon released and in the light of democratic reforms founded a (pretty unsuccessful - no seats in the National Assembly) political party - Frente Democratico Cristao (FDC - translation the Christian Democratic Front).

The 32 Battalion was mainly composed of black South Africans, Angolan and Mozambican exiles with this small group of Santomenses. Apparently ruthless.

With the end of apartheid the 32 Battalion was disbanded and gradually, the Santomense elements drifted back here.

In July 2003 the Santomense ex-Buffaloes, along with some discontented members of the local armed forces led an attempted coup.

At that time we lived just behind the Prime Minister's house - I heard shots at 4 am, turned over and went back to sleep. At 0630 am a Santomense friend phoned me and told me of the coup - the president was out of the country at the time, they rounded up all the members of government and incarcerated them in the capital's military HQ.

The US Ambassdor to STP with entourage, based in Gabon, were in STP at the time to give a reception celebrating the two countries' independence days given the two holidays fall within a week of each other. Their hotel was just around the corner from our residence so I spoke to my boss and asked if I should check up on them on my way to work. He replied "Yes".

I stopped at the junction of our backstreet with the PM's street, looked right towards her house, saw soldiers outside so took a left. Arrived at the hotel to find the US Ambassador having a breakfast crisis meeting with his team. His first, obvious, concern was the safety of the few other US citizens on the island but he wouldn't let his own US citizen diplomatic staff out of the hotel. So, I volunteered to go and find them and report back on their "safety". I was fortunately accompanied in this mission by another UK citizen working for the US embassy in Gabon (obviously the US ambassador wasn't too concerned with UK citizens). So Joan and I became firm friends and, after avoiding a few road blocks, were able to report that all his citizens were fine. I then ran errands, interpreted, translated etc for the US ambassador for the following few days ... a welcome distraction from my normal job!

At first the only diplomats from "major" countries were from the US and Portugal and they initiated negotiations with the Buffaloes. Then delegations from the Economic Community of Central African States, Angola and South Africa turned up and tried to turf the Americans out ... only after protests by Portugal and S. Africa (if I remember rightly) was the US Ambassador permitted to rejoin the negotiations.

Upshot of the negotiations:

1. More US support for the Santomense military (yes it has happened).
2. More Portuguese support for the Santomense military (?)
3. More South African support for the Santomense ex-Buffaloes

Part II next week.


Anonymous said...

Hi Angus, this is all really interesting and needless to say doesn't make the news here. I read a while back Chimamanda Ngozi Adichies book Half yellow sun about the Biafrin war which was a real eye opener for me. It started the year I was born so I didn't have any real knowledge of events but Ireland seemingly raised alot of money for the refugees and it was part of our consiousness growing up with comments from our elders telling us that the people of Biafra would love to have your life, dinner, etc.

Looking forward to installment 2,


Angus said...


Another excellent book about the war is "Shadows - Airlift and Airwar in Biafra and Nigeria 1967-1970" by Michael I. Draper published by Hikoki Publications. Audience is really anoraked plane-spotters but is very comprehensive and relates in detail the role of Sao Tome as a staging post for both relief operations and gun-running. In fact we still have two rotting Canairelief Lockheeds sitting at the end of the runway here. Not cheap at 30 pounds but well worth it.