Pedro Pires: The $5m Leader

Cape Verde’s former President, Pedro Verona Pires, has been named the winner of the world’s biggest prize for an individual, the Ibrahim Prize for Achievement in African Leadership. Pires receives $5m over 10 years and $200,000 for life thereafter. What did the leader of one of Africa’s smallest states do to impress the judging panel? […]


Cape Verde’s former President, Pedro Verona Pires, has been named the winner of the world’s biggest prize for an individual, the Ibrahim Prize for Achievement in African Leadership. Pires receives $5m over 10 years and $200,000 for life thereafter. What did the leader of one of Africa’s smallest states do to impress the judging panel? Is he really Africa’s best leader?

The Ibrahim Prize for Archievement in African Leadership, which dwarfs the Nobel Prize in terms of value, was instituted by Sudan-born entrepreneur Mo Ibrahim five years ago. He argued that one of the reasons many African leaders cling on to power is because they fear a return to poverty once their terms of office are over and they have few avenues from which to earn a decent living.

Western leaders, on the other hand, usually come from well-paid professional or business backgrounds and are often immediately offered lucrative directorships in several companies or are employed as well-paid consultants.

Many, like the UK’s ex-prime ministerTony Blair make far more money out of office then they ever earned while in it. Blair is one of the best-paid guest speakers in the world, has earned a small fortune from his memoires and is paid handsomely by international agencies for his consultative services.

Ibrahim argues that eliminating the perceived need to prepare for rainy days once a leader leaves office in Africa, allows the incumbent to concentrate on his or her primary task of working for the welfare of the state, avoid conflicts of interest and refuse the temptation to fiddle with constitutional rules in order to prolong tenure of office.

While this is the most generous prize in the world and reflects Mo Ibrahim’s burning zeal to improve governance across the continent, it is not without its critics.

Many in Africa are asking why it is necessary to dangle such large amounts of cash in order for national leaders to carry out the functions they have been elected to perform and for which they are very well paid from the national purse and accorded the highest rank and privilege the nation can provide?

Mo Ibrahim’s response, as he explained to me a couple of years ago when I asked him this question was that while it was all very well to believe in ideals, we do not live in an ideal world and he wanted pragmatic solutions to the tendency of African heads of state to hang on to office well past their due dates. If they were worried about their futures, he said, the prize would take care of that. Now all they had to worry about was the quality of the legacy they left behind.

The prize, he added, was also a recognition and reward for good governance – which often required the taking of brave political risks. He said he had seen several good leaders being traduced in public by their successors and driven virtually to poverty. He wanted to make sure that there was a tangible reward for excellent leadership beyond the satisfaction of having done a good job well.

“Why is nobody complaining about the Nobel Prize or the countless other awards given for excellence in so many fields?” he asked. “Are you suggesting that all those scientists and writers and doctors and leaders who win such awards would not have done what they did if the awards did not exist?” He has a point.

Although the Ibrahim Prize is generally believed to be an annual award, I gather this is a misconception. It is awarded as and when a suitable candidate comes along. However, the award only goes to former heads of state.

The selection process, according to the panel, is more transparent that it is for the Nobel. The committee considers candidates for a period of three years but keep the identity of the front runner a secret until the official unveiling.

There have been no winners for the past two years. The last winner was the former President of Botswana, Dr Festus Mogae, who followed Mozambique’s Joachim Chissano as the inaugural winner.

Why Pires won

According to the citation announced in London in October, the Prize Committee had been greatly impressed by President Pedro Pires’s vision in transforming Cape Verde into a model of democracy, stability and increased prosperity.

Under his 10 years as President, the citation continued, the nation became only the second African country to graduate from the UN’s Least Developed category and has won international recognition for its record on human rights and good governance.

“These achievements are all the more remarkable given that Cape Verde has few natural resources, a population of around 500,000 scattered over more than 10 islands and is located 570 km off the coast of West Africa,” the citation says.

Outlining his biography, the committee said that Pires had been a prominent freedom fighter in the struggle for independence from the Portuguese and had become Cape Verde’s first Prime Minister in 1975.

He was head of state for 16 years and paved the way for the country’s first democratic elections in 1991 when his African Party of Independence lost office.

“The Committee was impressed by his ability to manage the difficult transition from single-party autocracy to multiparty democracy.”

Pires was elected as President in 2001 and re-elected five years later. He announced that he was stepping down at the end of his second term and did so in August this year.

What did Pires achieve during his term of office? According to the IMF, real GDP grew annually between 2000 and 2009 by over 6%, well above the average for both sub-Saharan Africa and small island economies. Per capita incomes rose by 181% over the same period.

Pires invested this increased prosperity in improving the social capital of his citizens. Cape Verde has a literacy rate of over 80% and life expectancy of more than 70 years. The IMF adds that although poverty and unemployment remain a challenge, the country is well on track to meet its targets under the Millennium Development Goals.

In 2007, Cape Verde was judged advanced enough to no longer be regarded as a Least Developed Country by the UN.

While in office he paid great attention to sound macro-economic management, good governance and the responsible use of donor support to improve infrastructure, build up the country’s tourism industry and prioritise social development.

“The result is that Cape Verde is now seen as an African success story,” says the citation, “economically, socially and politically.

It was a remarkable endorsement of sustained economic growth and good management. Only Botswana, a country rich in natural resources and sound development policies, has previously been promoted to middle-income status. President Pires’s stewardship won Cape Verde international recognition as one of Africa’s most stable democracies. Over the last four years, it has ranked second out of the 53 African states in the Ibrahim Index of African Governance, and consistently displays high scores across all four categories of the Index – Safety andthe Rule of Law, Participation and Rights, Sustainable Economic Opportunity and Human Development.

But the questions remain. Can one really compare the leadership qualities required to efficiently run a country of 500,000 souls scattered over 10 islands to those needed to lead say, Nigeria with its population of over 155m with its attendant social, economic  and political complexities? The jury is out on this one.

What they said about him

Joachim Chissano, former President of Mozambique (also, like Cape Verde once a Portuguese colony) and the first winner of the Ibrahim Prize, described Pires as follows: “You have heard all this evaluation of his performance but one thing which was not said is about him as a human being. It is very hard for me to believe that Pires has got enemies among his fellow Cape Verdeans. He has a heart that attaches him to his people, whether they are in Cape Verde or outside.

“And I know him from the time we were forced to leave Portugal in 1961 to join the liberation struggle. He is a man who does not like violence. But he was a general in the liberation struggle because he did not like also to see the atrocities committed by colonialism in Angola, in Mozambique and in his own country, where he saw people being deported to São Tomé and Principe as slaves – as we had also the deportation of people from Mozambique.

“And this is someone with a hatred of violence who had to go through violence to do away with the violence of colonialism.

“He is a quiet man but a man who thinks very deeply about issues. I was given the opportunity – I can disclose this here – to talk with him yesterday on the phone to communicate the fact that he is the laureate this year. He did not react before reflecting on what this meant. So when we ask what are the qualities of those who receive the prize, it’s not just about doing your duty, there are many more things.”

Mary Robinson, the former President of Ireland and a member of the committee, said: “What struck me listening to my African and other colleagues on the prize committee was something Mo said, ‘This story of Cape Verde itself and of the prizewinner this year encapsulates extraordinary development’.”

Aïcha Bah Diallo, anther member of the selection committee, adds: “It’s amazing how we all agreed on saying that General Pedro Pires should win, which is very important. We went through his life and saw how well he has been doing in all four categories – safety and security, the rule of law, human development and sustainable development.

“And you see, when he was Prime Minister first, he said to himself, ‘My country has been suffering from hunger, so I should look into food security. But education and health is very important and also to develop the economy of the country’. Second, he said to himself, ‘A single party cannot make it, so we have to look into developing a multiparty system’. And he did it. And in fact he lost the first elections his party organised. But he accepted! So this is how democracy can be built.

“And I was impressed by the fact that when he left his post of prime minister, do you know that he didn’t have any house? Any car? He had to go back to his mother’s house and live there. You know, most leaders, when they leave, they always have something. He didn’t have anything. Meaning that he did value integrity, and no corruption. So he went back to his mother’s house and his friends said ‘Oh, la la, he doesn’t have a car. Let’s mobilise some funds’. They collected funds among themselves and they bought him a car. So easy!”

She adds: “And at the end, when people would say ‘Monsieur le President, you are the greatest, we are ready to help you change the constitution’, he said, ‘Hold it, no way. We have to consolidate the democracy we have started. I am not going to change the constitution – to be the first person in authority to change that. We have to follow the constitution, we have to follow what we have started’. That’s why we are saying Cape Verde is really a democratic country.”

With his prize money, and the time and leisure to enjoy his retirement from politics. Former President Pedro Pires will certainly not need a whip-round to buy a car, or a house. Honesty, integrity and vision, it seems, sometimes pay – even in a non-idealistic world.

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