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Interview: Patrice Trovoada, Prime Minister of São Tomé e Príncipe

By Nicholas Norbrook
Posted on Monday, 4 December 2017 12:47

Why wouldn’t China
see the opportunity?

The tiny archipelago of São Tomé e Príncipe put another nail into the coffin of Taiwanese diplomacy.
It announced in December 2016 that it was recognising the People’s Republic of China, after two decades of supporting Taipei’s claims to independence from the government of China.
Although Taiwan is recognised by just 21 governments now, it was an easy decision, says prime minister Patrice Trovoada.

While Taiwan was giving São Tomé $20m each year, Trovoada saw this as perpetuating a hand-to-mouth existence.
Instead, he wants a dynamic vision for the country. “We want to make São Tomé great, like Trump says!”, he laughs.
And China today, the world’s second-largest economy and now a key player on the continent, must be part of that, he argues.
With Beijing-linked companies well embedded throughout West and Central Africa, “we cannot avoid talking to the big players.
I can’t continue to have a hostile position to China.”

Trovoada’s vision is to turn São Tomé into a platform for logistics, trade and services in the subregion and beyond, attracting international companies.

“We want to play the role in West Africa that Djibouti plays in the East,” says Trovoada, referring to the small country on the Gulf of Aden, where China is building a port and military base.

The decision to switch diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to China, officially confirmed with an exchange of delegations on 26 December 2016, is one of realpolitik or perhaps realeconomik.
Taipei complained that Beijing used its power to buy São Tomé’s allegiance, with the foreign affairs ministry expressing “strong disappointment and regret that São Tomé has been confused by the diplomatic money campaign of mainland China and ignored the years of our great contributions to the health and wellbeing of the people of São Tomé.”

Taipei has complained that
Beijing used its power to
buy São Tomé’s allegiance

But Trovoada insists the diplomatic move was unconditional, with nothing traded beforehand, such as the financing of a new port.
“The only negotiating I did was with the Taiwanese themselves,” says Trovoada.
“I told them: ‘To stand with you, to take the risk of being part of a tension, is costly!’
Why stick with Taiwan? Look at Macau’s progress. Why not be part of the China-lusophone circle?”

Keen for contracts

The prime minister recalls speaking to multilateral institutions like the World Bank, which refused funding for projects and advised São Tomé to get closer to China.
The People’s Republic of China is a member of the Bretton Woods institutions and Taiwan is not.

Trovoada concedes that there were Chinese companies interested in entering the local market.
“But they were not saying, ‘We would like to invest’ but rather, ‘We would like to get contracts.’
The portion of investment was very small,” says Trovoada, “not more than 15% for each project.
But they knew that if we had a diplomatic relationship with China, they would be able to raise debt from the Chinese government.”

Open for business

Why would it have been a bad thing to attempt to get some payoff from China?
For Trovoada, there is simply no need, and in any case, the power imbalance is too great between the two countries.
He does, however, expect benefits from the country’s new ally:
“If our vision is correct, if within this vision we think São Tomé can play a role in the subregion for logistics, for maritime security, tourism, fishing, then why wouldn’t the country with a volume of trade of $200bn with Africa be interested?
A country who can see São Tomé is perfectly placed in the Gulf of Guinea less than two hours from 40% of Africa’s gross domestic product, with plenty of raw materials, close to a market of 250 million people with a fast-growing middle class – why wouldn’t China see the opportunity for business?”

He says Chinese business leaders are on the lookout for deals all over the world.
He points to ­Chinese billionaire Guo Guangchang, the owner of the French tourism business Club Med, as well as other Chinese investors who have taken up strategic stakes in Portuguese banks.
“They need to deploy that capital, and São Tomé is a good way to put those assets to work,” says Trovoada, who sees the country as an attractive destination for Chinese tourists.

But there are others who urge caution about São Tomé getting too close to China.
In Mozambique, which has attracted many Chinese investors, there are reports of decimated fish stocks.
Trovoada agrees that care is needed, but also points to Western hypocrisy.

Trovoada points to Chinese
investors who have taken up
stakes in Portuguese banks

Last year, a non-governmental organisation (NGO) that was funded by the European Union (EU) worked with the militaries of São Tomé and Gabon to catch Spanish fishermen operating illegally.
“But the EU called and almost gave us an injunction. They forced us to release the fishermen.
They didn’t even pay a fine – and this was with an EU NGO,” explains Trovoada.

Another impact of the decision to recognise Beijing is that it has left Trovoada’s political opponents flat-footed.
He recounts how he had often been criticised because it was he who took the decision to recognise Taiwan two decades ago.
“But then they [the opposition] were in power, they didn’t make the move. And now it’s too late.”

The decision to work with Beijing has also caused waves within his own party, the Acção Democrática Independente.
“When you no longer have $20m in your budget every year, there is an impact.
And even if China signs up for the airport and port, the effect in the economy will take two to three years.
We are having to cut expenses.”

Pleasing the elite

But it is on a personal political level that the challenge is beng most strongly felt.
“The elite of the administration are not happy,” says Trovoada. “In my own party too.
Taiwan used to be very flexible with car acquisition and the rental of houses to the Taiwanese.
In a small society like São Tomé, some politicians were used to getting $5,000 in rent.
It’s a big issue.
When a judge cannot get a huge Land Cruiser 4×4, with video and everything, it’s a big issue.”

For this reason, Trovoada’s diplomatic vision may seem fragile.
“For sure, if I have a heart attack ­tomorrow, everything changes,” says Trovoada.
This is why he is training the next generation – officials in their early and mid-30s who will hit their 40s as he is due to leave office.

He adds: “It’s critical, as these men and women will be the ones who can connect with the mass of the population, who are mostly between the ages of 15 and 30 today.
I am too old already!”, says Trovoada, the son of a former president who is keen to make a break with old forms of governance.

Trovoada’s vision, beyond a port, beyond a logistics platform, is a new cadre of São Toméan leader who can meet the aspirations of an emerging population.
“It’s my best investment,” he says.

From the April 2017 print edition

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