For generations, the islanders of Sao Tome and Principe made a meagre livelihood by cultivating cocoa. The recent discovery of oil in its territorial waters took the tiny west African state somewhat by surprise. The islands' 170,000 inhabitants lacked even an effective banking system in which to deposit their sudden windfall.
Oil exploration and production has left its mark across the African continent over the last three decades. Oil has all too often has provided the catalyst for corruption, economic mismanagement, civil unrest and even attempted coups as with the botched attempt in Equatorial Guinea that led to the arrest of Sir Mark Thatcher last month.
Angola is often cited as a prime example of the curse of black gold. Figures from the International Monetary Fund earlier this year suggest that over $1bn (£563m) a year of the country's oil revenues have gone unaccounted for since 1996.
In Nigeria, meanwhile, the former military dictator, General Sani Abacha, is estimated to have siphoned off $2-5bn in oil revenues directly into his personal account during his five-year reign in the mid-1990s. The average per capita income of the two countries stands at $710 and $300 respectively. Sao Tome and Principe has already experienced its fair share of instability. Dissident army troops briefly took control of the highly indebted country in July last year, anxious to gain control of the expected oil wealth.
The decision by the restored president, Fradique de Menezes, to publicly disclose all transactions resulting from oil activities in Sao Tome and Principe's territorial waters has therefore been warmly welcomed by international lenders and development agencies.
Nigeria, which has joint ownership of the oil-rich Gulf of Guinea, also put its name to the nine-point Abuja joint declaration, signed in late June. The transparency pact marks part of a wider programme of public financial management ushered in by the country's current president, Olusegun Obasanjo.
The disclosure agreement explicitly endorses the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI), a UK-led campaign to promote the disclosure of payments to governments from the oil, gas and mining industries.
Announced by Tony Blair at the world summit on sustainable development in September 2002, the EITI aims to ensure that revenues from natural resources go towards public expenditure on basic needs such as health and education, rather than into the pockets of the corrupt few.
The EITI requires countries to establish ongoing independent audits of extractive revenues and to publish all payments by companies in the participating country.
Nigeria is one of four initial nations working with the World Bank and the UK's Department for International Development to implement the scheme. The resource-rich state is also participating in parallel transparency initiatives run by the G8 and the New Partnership for Africa's Development.
From an international investment and development perspective, the emphasis given to public transparency in recent years is easily justified.
"Lack of transparency undermines public confidence in the legitimacy of the state," Mr Blair argued in a speech supporting the EITI last year. On the positive side, transparency can help attract foreign investment, reduce investor risk and increase the efficient use of public expenditure, the prime minister said.
Unfortunately, keeping the books as opaque as possible benefits the immediate interests of too many people in the world's poor-but-rich countries.
In the last couple of years, pressure groups such as the Publish What You Pay campaign have turned their eye to the corporate sector to act as a catalyst for change, arguing that the publication of oil revenue receipts should be made mandatory.
Unsurprisingly the position finds little support among extracting companies, few of whom are prepared to publicly break down the payments they make to individual countries. Confidentiality clauses, competitive disadvantage and non-participation by national companies have, by and large, combine to keep the data under wraps.
Yet, some promising examples of more open book-keeping are slowly emerging. In May this year, the Angolan government took the unprecedented step of revealing that US oil major ChevronTexaco had paid $300m for the extension of a drilling concession. The government of Chad also agreed to an innovative revenue management plan for a 1,070 km (665 mile) pipeline led by US oil giant ExxonMobil. In a deal brokered by the World Bank, all the oil royalties and dividends from the project are paid into an offshore sequestered account. The oil funds are then reinvested in the country in the form of high priority poverty relief programmes.
Essential to both cases, however, was the initial willingness of the national government to pursue a policy of openness. When BP famously decided to go it alone in 1999, disclosing its payment of a $111m signature bonus for Angola's block 31, the state oil company threatened to kick the British company out of the country.
The example served as a convenient pretext for every other oil company since to sit on its hands, nodding assent to the principles of transparency but waiting for national governments to make the first move. With no obvious incentive for corrupt elites, such political will has been a long time in coming. When it does come, however, as with Sao Tome and Principe, oil companies will have little choice but to open their books.
· Oliver Balch is managing editor of the bi-monthly journal, Corporate Citzenship Briefing