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Everyone on this island should be a millionaire by now. When oil was first discovered off the coast of São Tomé and Príncipe, a nation of fewer than 200,000 people lying in perfect isolation in the Gulf of Guinea 1,000km south of Nigeria and 500km west of Gabon, the estimated windfall was calculated at 14 billion barrels. A few quick sums were made. “Money for everyone!” remembers Afonso Valera, a senior minister who has been in and out of government for the past three decades. It didn’t quite turn out like that. Almost two decades on, not a single drop has been dug out of the seabed. “We got the Dutch disease without even having the oil,” says Patrice Trovoada, São Tomé’s prime minister. “This was poisoning the country, the political atmosphere – it was poisoning everything.”

São Tomé’s big dream slowly evaporated, leaving behind a generation scarred by hope. Now, though, there is a new dream: one that may prove equally quixotic. Valera and Trovoada, a little and large double act, believe great riches could be just around the corner for this isolated, tropical outpost.

Officially these islands were uninhabited when they were “discovered” by three Portuguese explorers in 1470; unofficially there was a tribe from Angola here already. The Portuguese nonetheless claimed it as part of their empire and imported slaves from across central Africa; most were sold on to the Caribbean but tens of thousands were put to work on plantations in São Tomé and the neighbouring island of Príncipe. By the start of the 20th century, São Tomé was the world’s largest producer of cocoa. Slavery was abolished but working conditions for Saotomeans did not improve much. When Portugal granted São Tomé its independence in 1975 there was an exodus; those who ran the country’s plantations upped and left, abandoning their businesses. Like so many other African nations that won their independence in an unplanned rush, there were not enough Saotomeans trained to a high enough level when the Portuguese departed. Plantations were left to ruin; businesses collapsed. Colonialism was replaced with communism, which brought its own set of problems. However, for the past 25 years São Tomé has been a democracy and a fairly genuine one at that: incumbents have lost and election results have always been accepted by all sides. There is no religious or ethnic fighting; it is as peaceful as a tropical island should be.

It’s as poor as one too. The statistics tell a story: 190,000 people, a government budget of €135m and 68 per cent of the population living in poverty. The capturing of the statistics also tell a story. Elsa Cardoso, the 53-year-old director general of the National Institute of Statistics, trained as an economist in Donetsk during São Tomé’s communist phase and regularly employs a deep and joyous cackle as she discusses the challenges of gathering accurate data. “We have no culture of statistics,” she says as she walks along the balcony corridor that links the institute’s second floor offices. It’s not just the culture: too few people have been trained like her. “It’s a poor country so it’s difficult,” she says, then belts out that laugh.

Cardoso’s office is next to the port, where technical director Adriano Rosamonte, a large man with a loud, green shirt, gives a tour. Just five or six ships come through here each month and, at capacity, the port can unload 100 containers a day; today they get through three in an hour. Men gather in small slivers of shade, escaping the heat and humidity while they wait for something to do. There’s little rush, it seems. Hundreds of crates of the local beer, Rosema, stand in the sun next to a ship bound for Togo. Nearby, sailors on the ferry that travels between São Tomé and Príncipe are making repairs before their next trip. “We are a small port,” says Rosamonte. Only ships no more than 100 metres long and 3.5 metres deep can make it in; anything larger has to wait out at sea. Two barges, orange with rust, are sent to pick up the containers. “That is the big problem that we have here.”

If São Tomé’s new dream becomes a reality this will all change: Prime Minister Trovoada wants to build the first deep-sea port in west Africa. Large container ships travelling to and from the region currently have to dock 4,000km north of São Tomé in the Canary Islands, where they unload onto smaller vessels for the journey back down south to Nigeria, Gabon or Angola. Building a port in São Tomé with a depth of 13.5 metres will dramatically reduce journey times for cargo crossing the Atlantic or sailing round the Cape from Asia; ships will no longer have to stop off at the Canaries first. “A deep-water port in São Tomé makes sense,” says Varela. “It can change international trade and bring Africa closer to South America.”

That’s the plan, anyway. The port’s funding relies on outsiders. China is supposed to stump up around 30 per cent; the rest will come from private investors. So far all São Tomé has to show for it is a letter of intention from the Chinese – “a press release” as Varela puts it – and a host of “discussions” that Varela is confident will lead to something more. He mentions talks with dhl to open an office in São Tomé, with Glencore to fund a tank farm for oil and with an unnamed company to build a ship-repair site.

The ambitions do not stop at a port: there are hopes to extend the runway at the airport from 2.2km to 3.2km. In this brave new world there will be direct flights to London, Paris and Frankfurt; there will also be a connection to Dubai and beyond. A new airline will be established (one that won’t be blacklisted like stp Airways) to serve routes to West Africa, enabling the 20,000 Americans working in Equatorial Guinea to escape to São Tomé for the weekend.

Varela insists that São Tomé’s location is a boon. “Two hours from São Tomé you have the richest country in Africa, you have the three biggest oil producers and you are in the most populous region in Africa, with 300 million consumers.” Another way of looking at is that São Tomé is so isolated that you need to fly for more than an hour before you reach another soul.

São Tomé’s closest friend, Taiwan, thinks they’re making a mistake. Tsung Che Chang, number two at the Taiwanese embassy, has been in São Tomé for more than 10 years over a period of more than 20. He has got to know Trovaora well, considering himself a genuine friend. The grand schemes, he believes, will get São Tomé nowhere. “The urgent need for the country is to improve the airport and the current port. There are fundamental infrastructure issues.” The new port plan could be a distraction, he adds. “They haven’t had any success raising money.” This is a pattern he’s noticed over the past two decades. “I have seen many good projects but only on paper. Everyone gets excited but then nothing happens.”

Aside from investing in the current port and airport, Chang believes São Tomé should focus on education. “Build an international university. This place is very safe so young people will come here from Nigeria and Gabon to study.” A renewed focus on education would also help tourism; too few people speak English, he argues. “They are already geographically isolated – they cannot be isolated even more by language.” Chang’s suggestions, like many those from other well-meaning friends, appear to have fallen on deaf ears.

São Tomé is one of the only nations in Africa that recognises Taiwan and as a result there is no Chinese embassy here. Chang professes to being relaxed about China’s renewed interest in São Tomé and does not believe his hosts are about to switch sides. China, it seems, is happy to invest here without restoring diplomatic links. When diplomatic relations with Taiwan began in 1997, China packed up and went home. There was, though, an awkward two-month period when both delegations were based on São Tomé’s rather small diplomatic street – despite cheery hellos from the Taiwanese, the Chinese diplomats steadfastly refused to make eye contact.

In an air-conditioned, wood-panelled government office it’s easy to forget that this is a tropical island with 90 per cent humidity; outside it’s impossible. Palm trees line the verge of city centre streets and motorbike taxis buzz past, weaving their way between potholes. Stray dogs laze in the shade looking for scraps of food. As the sun begins to set, school children perch on the balustrades that line the road overlooking the sea, playing cards, braiding each other’s hair or searching for wi-fi on their smartphones in one of the new public hotspots.

A short drive outside the city centre, São Tomé becomes very rural very quickly. Women wash clothes in the river; men stride past with a machete in hand and logs of bamboo piled onto a shoulder. Young boys on simple, hand-made wooden skateboards whizz by a church, shifting one way and another, stumbling if they try anything too elaborate.

The road north, towards the prime minister’s private beach villa, is lined with five-storey-high palms and banana trees with two-metre-long leaves. The main road turns into a dirt track, winding its way through the jungle and down to sea level. The first big house, protected by broken glass glued onto the tops of the wall, belongs to the former president who signed most of the oil deals: Fradique de Menezes. A little further along is the villa where Trovoada hosts guests: a grand wooden house overlooking the ocean. There are botanical gardens, a swimming pool and several muscular men in camouflage sauntering around with ak47s.

Trovoada was born into power. His father, Miguel, was a freedom fighter who was the first prime minister when São Tomé won its independence. Miguel fell out with the president, Manuel Pinto da Costa, who put him in prison. (Da Costa is now president once again; Trovoada says they don’t talk about the time Da Costa threw his dad in jail).

Trovoada, like everyone who has had power in São Tomé, has been accused of corruption. He was sacked as an oil adviser to President Menezes for having business interests in one of the companies involved in the tendering process. (Trovoada denies this and says he resigned because he thought the deal was “fishy”.) Corruption, he admits, has been a major problem for São Tomé, particularly around the time of the oil deals with Nigeria. “It’s not an excuse but the standard of life of your partners who are already oil producers [is attractive]. Maybe you want to live like them. This creates some risk.”

It is, he believes, a problem for the older generation of politicians. “This generation, which is going out now, was built on intrigue, on greed. For them everything is coming from government, everything is coming from the party, everything is coming because ‘I’m a good militant, a good comrade’.”

Today the bigger corruption problem is in the middle ranks of government, says Trovoada; Chang at the Taiwanese embassy agrees. When public projects begin, Chang says, those involved think about themselves first. “‘I have to have a car, I have to have a computer.’ The government isn’t controlling assets. How many cars do they have? They don’t know. How many computers? The system is not functioning yet.”

Trovoada, a big man with a big house, says he wants to get a grip on it. “I’m telling my ministers, ‘Look guys, why don’t we drive small cars? The reward, politically, will ensure that you will stay minister for four more years, so what is the problem? You want to drive a big 4x4 with air-con, dvd, blah, blah, blah – forget that.” (Trovoada has two big 4x4s with air-con, dvd, blah, blah, blah – as well as an old Jaguar, which he says he doesn’t drive because people will think he’s rich. He’s not rich, he insists, just “comfortable”.)

Then he explains what his voters really want. “Ministers should stop and speak with the people. They will be happy. They just want a little bit of attention. They are not asking for too much.” Lack of water and electricity are arguably the two biggest problems in the country but Trovoada believes it’s only necessary to try to fix one problem at a time. “You tell people, ‘Water or electricity?’ They say, ‘TV’. So then you understand: water comes after; first of all electricity. These people have been poor forever so there is no big problem.”

Not all voters are happy with small changes. “They promised to grow the economy and develop the country,” says Edley Menezes, a trainee civil servant. “They told us they will make São Tomé like Dubai in 10 years – we’re still waiting,” he adds with a laugh; he knows it will never happen.

The road south of the city was built by the EU, a foreign taxpayer-funded ribbon of black rippling through a verdant jungle that climbs and winds into the mountains before wending its way down to sea level. It passes old plantations, an incredible stone hospital built for thousands of workers but now empty and an abandoned coffee-drying building with no roof. The Pico Cao Grande (Big Dog Mountain), a phallic peak covered in trees, pops up throughout the journey. At the end of the road is the ocean, where São Tomé comes to a halt. To the left waves roll and roil, swirling in a whirlpool of their own creation before crashing against the black rock, sending white surf high into the humid air. To the right the rocks arc round, creating an enclosed and perfectly calm pool that laps against the pristine orange sand beach. Straight ahead the ocean disappears over the horizon, not hitting land again until it reaches Antarctica, 10,000km and half a world away.

This archipelago nation is in the centre of the world yet could not be more isolated. Its future is yoked to big dreams of wide-eyed politicians, when perhaps smaller ambitions might make more of an impact. Despite the best of intentions, São Tomé remains in the middle of nowhere, hoping to avoid the rocks to the left, unsure whether it will ever enjoy the serenity of the beach to the right.

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