Coup leaders hand power back to civilian president

The military junta which seized power in the potentially oil-rich island state of Sao Tome and Principe last week, signed an agreement with international mediators on Wednesday to allow the reinstatement of the elected government of President Fradique de Menezes, news agencies with local correspondents reported.

Menezes, who was visiting Nigeria at the time of the 16 July coup, flew back to the twin-island state, 240 km west of Gabon on Wednesday night, accompanied by Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo, they added.

The French news agency AFP said the military junta, led by Major Fernando Pereira, had agreed to the return and reinstatement of Menezes in return for an amnesty for the coup leaders and their civilian collaborators and the formation of a new government.

Reuters quoted a diplomat as saying fresh elections would be held with the presence of international observers.

The deal was negotiated by diplomats from Portugal, Brazil, the United States and several African countries. The team was led by Rodolphe Adada, the foreign minister of Congo-Brazzaville.

Many of those involved in the Sao Tome coup were former members of the Buffalo Batallion, a mercenary unit created by the Apartheid government in South Africa in the 1970s to fight in Namibia and Angola. It was disbanded in 1993.

A South African delegation led by Kingley Mambolo, deputy director of the Africa department of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, flew to Sao Tome on Tuesday to join the 30-strong team of international mediators. RDP, the Portuguese state radio station said the South Africans had been sent to help determine the future of the former Buffalo Batallion members who had taken part in the coup.

Menezes, who was elected in 2001, left Nigeria for the Gabonese capital Libreville earlier this week. There he held talks on Tuesday with President Omar Bongo and some of the international mediators who negotiated a deal to end the military uprising in Sao Tome. Obasanjo's plane stopped in Libreville to take him home.

The coup leaders said they had seized power in frustration at the persistence of grinding poverty among Sao Tome's 170,000 inhabitants despite the imminent arrival of an oil boom in the island state. They also complained about the rapid enrichment of senior government officials whom they accused of corruption.

Seismic surveys indicate that the offshore waters of Sao Tome, which the country has agreed to develop in partnership with Nigeria, contain rich oil reserves.

The former Portuguese colony has until now eked out a living from cocoa exports. But it should receive a first windfall from oil next year when it banks about US$100 million of front end signature bonuses for the award of nine offshore blocks to foreign oil companies. This windfall payment will be more than twice the islands' annual budget.

Although Sao Tome has a per capita income of just $280 at present, it has high hopes of becoming one of Africa's leading oil exporters over the next decade. Seismic data gathered so far indicates the presence of between four and 11 billion barrels of oil reserves in water depths of 1,500 to 2,500 metres. New technology developed in recent years has made it commercially viable to extract oil in such challenging conditions.

The mountainous and heavily forested islands, which gained independence from Portugal in 1975, suffered one previous short-lived military takeover in 1995. The leaders of that coup handed power back to the country's elected leaders a week later following mediation by Angola.