|The Courier N° 136 - Nov-Dec 1992 - Dossier Humanitarian Aid - Country Reports: Soa Tomé- Principe- Senegal (EC Courier, 1992, 96 p.)|
|Sao Tome & Principe: An alternative to cocoa?|
says 'We could have the same policy with fewer social costs'
Carlos Gra now Secretary-General of Sao Tomamp; Principe's Liberation Movement and Social Democratic Party (MLSTP-PSD), was long an opponent of the regime of President Pinto da Costa and was forced into exile as a result. He took refuge in Gabon, where he practised medicine for 10 years and came home when democracy was announced in 1989, joining the Government as Foreign Minister. So it was a relatively new man who led the former single party, frayed after 15 years of rule, into the elections and managed to restrict the damage by obtaining 30.6% of the votes. It is as leader of the opposition that he answers The Courier's questions in this interview.
· Your party was behind the demonstrations which juts brought down the Government of the Second Republic, I believe...
- The demonstrations were not the essential thing here, I think. They did indeed push events along a bit, but there were two very big problems to begin with. First of all, there was a conflict between the President of the Republic and the Government over a difference of opinion as to how they should interpret what the Constitution said about the scope of the President's duties. The Government, from the PCD. the Democratic Convergence Party, made a lot of authoritarian moves. It tried to put down the old single party, for example, and it tried to weaken the powers which the President of the Republic has under our system of government. Ours is a semi-presidential regime, but one which gives the President considerable powers, especially over external policy and national defence and security, and the PCD, bolstered by its absolute majority, tried to take them away from him. He was unwilling to go along with this, however, hence the institutional conflict... and the President deciding to put down the Government. The second thing was popular discontent over rising prices, which was made worse by the fact that the members of this new party had based their election campaign on the idea that all Sao Tomamp; Principe's problems were due to bad management and corruption in the single party and that things would be bound to get better if the single party was out of the way.
· But don't you think that this austerity policy which caused all the discontent is the consequence of your own policy over the past 16 years ?
- No, I don't. Let me finish what I was saying. The problem is that they made people believe that a change of party was a good thing, so they expected things to get better. There was a euphoric speech. There were implicit promises and explicit promises and the people expected things to get better. But they didn't. They got worse. Purchasing power plummeted and the people weren't prepared for it. In a way, the Government paid for its rabble-rousing, because there were popular demonstrations, the first one spontaneous and the second organised by our party and the other opposition parties.
· But what would you do today if you were in power, with the structural adjustment programme to cope with ? Wouldn't you have to bring in the same sort of measures?
- Of course we would! But we told the truth during the election campaign. We said that we couldn't improve the situation overnight and that improvements would take years of hard work and sacrifice. If we had won the elections, we would have been in a different situation. The people could have coped with one or two sacrifices, but, with all the euphoria of the speeches they had heard, they were obviously not psychologically prepared for a decline in their standard of living. We also believe that we could have brought in these measures a little more gradually, perhaps, and that all the possibilities with the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund have not been exhausted. Sao Tomamp; Principe is in a special situation; that of a micro-State with no resources, and a slightly better job could have been made of negotiating the unavoidable rationalisation measures. It was the commodity price slump which made the debt so much worse and led almost all the African countries to accept these macro-economic adjustments. It's not a party problem, you see. It's a structural problem which we commodity-exporting countries have.
· How do you see Sao Tomamp; Principe's future?
- We are still optimistic about the medium and long term, because we have possibilities which probably haven't been exploited so far.
· What are you thinking of ?
- We have already done studies on this. The party currently in power is continuing what we did. It is inaugurating a lot of things at the moment, furthermore, projects which we actually got going. We have to get out of the cocoa trade, because there's no future there, that much is clear. We have to look to tourism. Seychelles is some sort of encouragement here, because they make $4000 per capita just with their tourist trade. They have the third or fourth biggest per capita income in Africa and they are only a small country and they only have tourism.
· But it's not an island on the equator like Sao Tome...
- Yes, but it's the same sort of exoticism - views and beaches and so on. We have assets for the tourist trade and we have assets when it comes to industrial fishing. We have very little land, but a great deal of sea, plenty of exclusive economic zone. And despite all the competition, we have also wondered about a free zone and off-shore banking and setting up industries here using the cheap labour to produce goods for the export markets in Nigeria, Cameroon and Gabon. Those are the three big sectors which should be good for the future - not forgetting agriculture. We have to make an effort to get out of the cocoa trade and promote other, more profitable crops. Pimentos are being studied and tested at the moment and we have to look for other, more profitable export products and try to develop food crops at the same time, because we import a lot of things, like beans, which we could actually grow ourselves.
· You won't be surprised if I tell you that the Prime Minister says exactly the same thing...
- There is no difference between the parties. They all have the same answers. Fukuyama called it the end of history - no more ideological debate. We have the same answers, all of us, we have the same way of looking at the problems, but our different groups struggle. There is even a problem of families here...
· Families ?
- Yes. We have a big family in power here, the Prime Minister's family. But we have no tribal problems, fortunately. I am forever saying that rivalry of that sort is irrational. Why all the hatred of the ex-single party which was completely open in the three years of transition and freed all the prisoners and let all the exiles, me included, come home? And then there was a party which said a lot about democracy but gained power and began a witch-hunt... You have to see the single party in its historical context. All these people were members of the single party. One or two of them were Ministers, even. Take Trovoada and Daio and so on. They bear some of the responsibility.
· So how do you think you can get into power if you are offering the same policy as the present Government?
- The others ran a rabble-rousing campaign and we had been in power for too long. People naturally wanted a change after 15 years. They were 54% for the new party and 30.5% for us - not a bad result given the conditions in which we went to the hustings, with a disastrous economic situation and 15 years of single-party rule behind us. The people who expected to see their standard of living improve are now saying that they were misled. But we are still telling the truth, just as we told it during the election campaign. Our adversaries are coming round to what we say, but it's too late. If there were elections now, we would be bound to win them to run the same policy with perhaps a little more experience and maturity. We could have the same policy at smaller social cost. They said themselves that they haven't been able to promote the social side of the structural adjustment plan yet. Ultimately, when they talked to the opposition parties - the little ones, that is, not us, we haven't met yet - they also admitted that they had been wrong not to have some more dialogue with the MLSTP-PSD. I maintain that it wasn't just a lack of dialogue. It was a veritable witch-hunt as far as we were concerned. We were pushed out of our headquarters, all our smaller district headquarters were taken, we lost our cars and our former Prime Minister was sent to court over a prefabricated housing affair - which was in fact a purely political issue.
· Your experience didn't stop you from coming up with white elephants then...
- It wasn't a white elephant since we didn't think we would be paying for it. When we had the offer, we telephoned Manual Dos Santos, Guinea Bissau's Minister of the Economy, to ask for details because they had the same offer there. And Manuel Dos Santos said: 'No problems. Officially, there is a price which is far more than the houses are worth, but you don't pay anything. You sign and a year later you tell the Italian Government that you can't pay'. The Italian Government, which is already in contact with the Italian firms which build these houses, is intervening. It is paying half in the form of development aid and the other half is to be paid over 10 years. The debt will be rescheduled in a year or two and then written off altogether. But, since the new party failed to stick to the agreed procedure after the elections, it may have to pay up in the end, because the case had to be monitored in Italy for the Italian Government to take over these debts. They blocked the case because they wanted to make a political case out of it and I don't know whether they will be able to set the procedure in motion again after all this time.
Interview by Amadou TRAORE