São Tomé and Príncipe became independent from Portugal in 1975, enjoying a relatively peaceful transition to self-rule. The country’s first elections were held in 1991 in a free and fair environment, although a short-lived coup d’état in 1995 highlighted the potential for the Santomean military to destabilise politics.1 The discovery of offshore oil fields in the seas around São Tomé and Príncipe in 2000 presented a potential boost for the Santomean economy, but also served to raise the stakes in politics.2 Ongoing disputes between the prime minister and president over constitutional reform culminated with the latter dissolving parliament in January 2003. Violent protests against the government broke out in April and, by July, threatened to overthrow the government.3 Further complexity was added to the crisis by the return of Santomean veterans of South Africa’s infamous Buffalo Battalion to the country after serving for decades as mercenaries. On 16 July 2003, a group of these veterans launched a coup d’état with the support of around half of São Tomé and Príncipe’s small army. Once in power, the military junta was reinforced by additional Buffalo Battalion veterans who returned to São Tomé and Príncipe in its wake.4 Although the coup had taken place without loss of life, São Tomé and Príncipe faced armed conflict between the military junta and forces loyal to the deposed administration.5
The international effort to prevent armed conflict and restore constitutional rule began the day after the coup, when American and Portuguese diplomats met representatives of the military junta.6 Meanwhile, a host of national governments and regional institutions condemned the coup and discussed the possibility of a Military intervention. After three days of talks, the junta agreed a Memorandum of Understanding with the diplomats, establishing the framework for a negotiated settlement. Further talks were hosted by the governments of Nigeria, the USA, Portugal, South Africa (at the request of the Buffalo Battalion veterans), as well as the Community of Portuguese Language Countries and the Economic Community of Central African States..7 After negotiating the restoration of constitutional rule in return for amnesty for the coup plotters, the mediators presented the deal to the ousted Santomean president, who returned to the islands accompanied by the President of Nigeria.8 This timely diplomatic intervention prevented the outbreak of armed conflict in São Tomé and Príncipe.