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How does Portuguese-speaking Africa stand on Russia?

May 21, 2024

Russia has beefed up efforts to build stronger relations with Portuguese-speaking African nations, positioning itself as a military power without a colonial past.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Mozambican President Filipe Jacinto Nyusi on the sidelines of Russia-Africa summit in Saint Petersburg, Russia, July 27, 2023
Mozambican President Filipe Jacinto Nyusi (left) met his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin (right) at the Russia-Africa summit in July 2023 in a bid to strengthen bilaterial ties Image: Alexei Danichev/REUTERS

Portugual said it is "greatly concerned" by reports that its former colony Sao Tome and Principe has signed a military cooperation accord with Russia "for an indefinite period." 

Sao Tome and Principe inked the agreement with Russia on April 24 in St. Petersburg, which calls for military training, logistical support and "possible collaborations" involving Russian ships and planes, according to the AFP news agency, which cited Russia's official news gazette. The deal was reportedly implemented on May 5. 

All six Portuguese-speaking, or Lusophone, countries in Africa have now signed military agreements with Russia. The first contacts arose during the Soviet era, when liberation organizations in the Lusophone countries that fought against the Portuguese colonial regime received political and military support from Moscow. After the end of the Soviet Union, relations with Russia continued. In recent years, Moscow has tried to intensify these ties.

Dispute within the Lusophone community

A discreet but intense dispute has been simmering for some time in the Community of Portuguese-Speaking Countries (CPLP) — a bloc of the nine nations across the world where Portuguese is the official language — over its position on Russia's war in Ukraine.


Six of the nine CPLP members — Angola, Cape Verde, Guinea-Bissau, Mozambique, Sao Tome and Principe, and Equitorial Guinea — are on the African continent, only two of which — Cape Verde, and Sao Tome and Principe — condemned Russia's war of aggression in United Nations General Assembly resolutions

Angola and Guinea-Bissau in 2022 condemned Russia's so-called referendums on the annexation of eastern Ukrainian territories as illegal.

But otherwise, the picture in the CPLP is very mixed. Portugal, Brazil, East Timor and Cape Verde joined almost every one of the six resolutions of the UN General Assembly's emergency special session dedicated to the conflict.

The other Lusophone countries in Africa mostly abstained or did not even take part in the voting process.

"The CPLP, always seeking balance, tried for a long time to paper over this rift that runs through the organization, but now — with this agreement between Moscow and Sao Tome — the conflict has become clearly visible," said Portuguese-Sao Tomean journalist Joao Carlos, who reports for DW from Lisbon.

"This is a very sensitive question for the CPLP, whose representatives are always striving for harmony and balance, because it clearly shows that there are also tangible conflicts in the Lusophone world — beyond cultural and linguistic similarities."

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Zacarias da Costa, a diplomat from East Timor and the current rotating executive secretary of the CPLP, learned about the military agreement during a visit to Sao Tome.

Da Costa said that the Russian-Sao Tomean military agreement should not be "dramatized" and emphasized the need to respect the sovereignty of all CPLP states.

"The CPLP is not me; the CPLP is all nine countries that make up this community," da Costa told reporters after a meeting with Prime Minister Patrice Trovoada. "We must respect Sao Tome and Principe's sovereign decision."

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Portugal: Dismay, concern, confusion

Portuguese Foreign Minister Paulo Rangel expressed "dismay, concern, and confusion over this agreement" from Portugal and "other European states."

The next day, Rangel stated that "the relations between Portugal and Sao Tome and Principe are not affected by this agreement," repeatedly emphasizing that "Sao Tome and Principe is, of course, a sovereign state."

The Prime Minister of Cape Verde, Ulisses Correia e Silva, also sought to clarify the CPLP's position.

"The aim of the CPLP is not to establish a common position in foreign policy, for example regarding Russia," Silva said.

"It would be good if there were indeed a common position, but that is not the main goal of the CPLP, whose members are free and independent countries."

Finally, Sao Tome and Principe's Prime Minister Patrice Trovada himself responded to the controversy. 

Trovada told reporters that his country is an independent, sovereign state and will not let anyone dictate with whom friendship agreements may be concluded.

"It's true: Sao Tome and Principe is a sovereign country, but no state in the world should make such far-reaching decisions without consulting its partners nowadays," said Raul Cardoso, spokesman for Sao Tome and Principe's largest opposition party, the Partido Social Democrata (MLSTP-PSD).

"We are particularly concerned that the military cooperation is not limited in time," Cardoso told DW. "We are also concerned that the agreement was obviously negotiated and signed in back rooms, without any discussion with the authorities of our state."

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Small country, big strategic significance

The international press often describes Sao Tome and Principe as being "too small, too distant and too insignificant." 

However, the archipelago located on the equator, with approximately 220,000 inhabitants, is far more strategically significant than commonly assumed. 

Since 1992, US broadcaster Voice of America has operated a relay station there to broadcast to the entire African continent on short wave and medium wave.

The ideal location of the archipelago makes this possible.

Due to its proximity to the major oil-exporting nations of Nigeria, Gabon, Equatorial Guinea, and Angola, considerations have also been made for years to build a deep-sea port for large tankers in the north of the main island of Sao Tome, which could load crude oil abundant in national waters, as well as in the waters of neighboring countries.

Sao Tome has in the past entered into offshore oil project agreements with Nigeria and Angola. French and Chinese companies have already shown interest in such a port project.

Militarily, Sao Tome and Principe has mainly collaborated with Brazil — as well as Portugal, whose navy patrols the archipelago's waters. Portuguese armed forces have also been providing military training in the country since its independence in 1975.

Is Guinea-Bissau next on Moscow's list?

Umaro Sissoco Embalo, the president of Guinea-Bissau, another former Portuguese colony in Africa, returned home after visiting Russia for its May 9 public holiday marking Nazi Germany's capitulation in World War II.

Guinea-Bissau's President Umaro Sissoco Embalo arrives for a Victory Day military parade in Moscow's Red Square marking Nazi Germany's capitulation in World War II
Guinea-Bissau's President Umaro Sissoco Embalo was the highest-ranking African politician in attendance at this year's May 9 commemorations in RussiaImage: Alexei Maishev/TASS/dpa/picture alliance

After participating in the official celebrations in Moscow, Embalo declared that Russia could count on Guinea-Bissau as a "permanent and loyal ally."

"The next Lusophone country likely to intensify the military ties with Russia is likely to be Guinea-Bissau. This is certain in journalist circles in Lisbon," said Portuguese-Sao-Tomean journalist Joao Carlos.

Guinea-Bissau has already signed a military agreement with Russia in November 2018. Observers are certain: A new, updated framework agreement on increased military cooperation between Russia and Guinea-Bissau is ready to be signed. However, President Embalo has not yet officially confirmed this.

"I used the celebrations in Moscow to talk about ways in which our two countries can benefit from each other," said Guinea-Bissau's president upon his return from Moscow.

Guinea-Bissau will assume the rotating presidency of the CPLP in June.

This article was originally written in German.

Joao Carlos contributed reporting.

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