AS FOREIGN countries go, the Democratic Republic of Sao Tome and Principe is not exactly a household word. Better take your maps out. The five tiny islands off the coast of West Africa are steadily edging toward an alliance with the United States.
If it's consummated, it will be a marriage of convenience. The United States wants to lessen reliance on Middle Eastern fuel; Sao Tome has huge unexploited oil deposits. Sao Tome, for its part, wants protection against Nigeria, which already covets an oil-rich territory belonging to another neighbor, Cameroon. That's why Sao Tome has invited the United States to install a naval base on the islands.
Sub-Saharan Africa supplies about 15 percent of U.S. oil, roughly as much as Saudi Arabia does. No wonder President Bush is planning to visit the region early next year.
Recent bloody riots in Nigeria have only increased the attractiveness of Sao Tome and such other big producers as Angola, Gabon and Equatorial Guinea. Unlike troubled Nigeria, they are not members of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, which means their oil is not subject to the Arab-dominated group's quota and price constraints. They are also geographically closer to the United States, making transport easier and cheaper.
The Nigerian riots have demonstrated the passions and fragility of that country, where the federal government is corrupt and weak and where the north is largely Islamic and the south Christian. Unless the spread of militancy can be stopped, Nigeria may disintegrate. Nigeria is such a big, disorderly country that the United States is unlikely to have much influence there. Yet Washington should try to foster forward-looking, credible leadership there and insist on sound policies, particularly a more equal income distribution.
In Sao Tome, one of the world's poorest countries, the United States will have much more clout. If the Bush administration decides to become a pivotal player there, the only way it can guarantee the islands' long-term stability is by making sure that the 160,000 residents share the oil wealth.
It would be shameful for Washington to allow Sao Tome to become another Angola, a country where the kleptomaniac elite has stolen the oil profits without giving anything to the people.