The politics of São Tomé and Príncipe, the small island nation of roughly 200,000, is hardly among the first states to be invoked in discussions of coups. The microstate is not even considered by a handful of data projects covering coups, given its small size. The state has, however, been shaken by several coup attempts durring its history. Indeed, on this day in 1995, an effort to unseat President Miguel Travoada went into motion. This post revisits this ultimately failed coup, and briefly touches on lessons from the event for those studying coups.
The August 15 Coup
Early August 15, around forty soldiers, reportedly led by Second Lieutenant Fernando Sousa Pontes, entered the compound of President Miguel Trovoada. After a brief exchange of gunfire that left one guard killed, the Presidential Guard quickly surrendered. President Trovoada took shelter in a bunker below the palace, but after two hours turned himself over after his wife Helena–captured by the conspirators–relayed to him that the soldiers were going to use explosives to enter. Trovoada was detained and held at a military barracks. Second Lieutenant Manuel Quintas de Almeida, who previously served in former President Pinto da Costa’s Presidential Guard, directed efforts to overtake other strategic locations. In an 8:00 a.m. radio broadcast, Almedia announced the creation of a Junta of National Salvation.
The soldiers were reportedly motivated by the poor state of the military, which they argued was in part due to economic mismanagement and corruption of the politicians. These concerns were also found in the broader population, with recent months having seen unrest in the form of strikes from teachers and doctors. The officers had written formal letters to the Minister of Defense, detailing concerns about a lack of equipment, uniforms, low pay, and poor living conditions more generally. Following a lack of response, discussions of a coup emerged.
The coup was immediately rebuked by virtually every meaningful international actor. Portugal suspended technical and military cooperation, Angola threatened to cut off oil supplies, and President Omar Bongo of Gabon called for a multinational intervention force modeled on the recent intervention against Raoul’s Cedras’s junta in Haiti. Within a day, the officers had retreated from the creation of a junta and began talks with the opposition. Almeida pushed for President of the National Assembly, Francisco Fortunato Pires, to be named interim head of state. This would give the effort a constitutional flavor, given it was the National Assembly President who was designated to take over when the President proves unable to fulfill their duties. After proposing a transitional government and early elections within a year, the civilian officials–with the backing of the international community–demanded the immediate restoration of the government. By August 21, the conspirators informed Angolan mediators that they were prepared to reinstate Trovoada, granted they would be given immunity. On August 22, the agreement was finalized and the “Junta of National Salvation” dissolved.
Lessons for the Study of Coups
While the casual observer would certainly not question the coup's outcome, the 1995 attempt against Travoada presents a bit of a dilemma for some research coup research. Efforts to study coups cross-nationally have had to arrive at some standard for determining whether a coup has succeeded or failed. For around 50 years, scholars have centered on a one-week threshold for success. If coupists manage to supplant an incumbent for for a full seven days, the event is considered a success.
While obviously arbitrary, any cut off would prove to be so. The large majority of coups see the outcome determined within one or two days. When we originally compared Powell and Thyne's Global Instances of Coups to the Center for Systemic Peace's coup dataset, we actually identified only one case for which the P&T coding of a coup's outcome would have been different if using CSP's 30-day threshold. That event, Lesotho's 1994 coup, had seen a SADC-endorsed and South Africa-led intervention reverse the coup after three weeks. The event was consequently identified as failed coup in CSP and successful coup in P&T's original coding.
São Tomé and Príncipe's 1995 coup represents a rare problem for the one-week threshold because it was resolved right at seven days. In fact, the original P&T coding considered the event to have failed on the seventh day due to the junta's negotiated exit. The exit did not occur, however, until the eighth. Interestingly, a similar progression occurred eight years later in São Tomé and Príncipe when Fradique de Menezes was similarly deposed, but returned to power on the eighth day. More recent cases, such as Burkina Faso's failed 2015 coup bid, have also tip-toed along the seven-day threshold.
Rather than illustrating the arbitrariness of the standard, what I find more revealing is the manner in which these borderline events fail. Once a coup survives for a handful of days, international pressure becomes paramount to the coup's outcome. In both 1995 and 2003, São Tomé and Príncipe's coups failed due to pronounced international pressure, as did other coups that were reversed after a longer period. Those interested in the roles of internal factors in coups, consenquently, might need to consider the degree to which internal dynamics actually caused a coup to fail, whereas those interested in international factors might want to look at impacts beyond the first week. While internal resistance may be spontaneous, international actions take time.
Note: Details of the 1995 coup attempt are taken from Coups and Conspiracies in Modern Africa, by Jonathan Powell and Salah Ben Hammou.
Welcome to the Arrested Dictatorship blog. Posts on recent events are periodically updated as more information becomes available. It is currently edited by Jonathan Powell and Salah Ben Hammou at the University of Central Florida.
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