Why Pedro Pires won the $5 million Ibrahim Prize for African governance

Cape Verde's former president Pedro Pires won the $5 million Ibrahim Prize for good governance both for how he eased his nation's indebtedness, and for his willingness to step down from power.

Felipe Dana/AP/File
In this May 28, 2010 file photo, Argentina's President Cristina Fernandez and Cape Verde's President Pedro Pires attend the Third Forum of the Alliance of Civilizations (AoC) in Rio de Janeiro. A $5 million prize for good African governance was awarded Monday, to the former president of Cape Verde, cited for turning his small island nation into a model of democracy, stability and prosperity.

As president, Pedro Verona Pires helped take his native Cape Verde out of the kind of budgetary crisis and indebtedness that now afflicts bigger European nations like Portugal, Greece, and Spain. And then he did the most unusual thing of all, for an African leader: he stepped down from office.

For his efforts in good governance, Mr. Pires was named as the third man to receive the Ibrahim Prize, a $5 million prize given by Sudanese-born telecommunications executive Mo Ibrahim to African leaders who raise the bar for good governance and leadership.

Speaking of Pires, prize committee members wrote that “Cape Verde is now seen as an African success story, economically, socially and politically,” in their citation, announced Tuesday.

Pires himself told reporters that the prize was “a recognition of my 50 years of wholesale and exclusive dedication to politics, and the causes of independence and democracy."

Awarding leaders for simply doing their job and stepping aside may seem like an odd idea, but given the large number of African leaders who hang on to power, year after year, decade after decade, the Ibrahim Prize stands as much as an encouragement for banal good behavior as it is a chastisement for ineptitude and greed. And as resource-rich nations of the African continent take a larger part in the global economy, both as producers and as consumers, good governance takes on an even greater importance.

“I think such prizes are very worthwhile, because on one hand there is very positive movement in Africa in terms of its growth rate, but on the other hand, governance is a real problem in Africa,” says Francis Kornegay, researcher at the Institute for Global Dialogue in Johannesburg, South Africa. “But the problem with these problems is that as good as they are at giving good incentives for African leaders, you are really only seeing the winners coming from peripheral countries like Cape Verde.”

Cape Verde, a country with just 500,000 residents, is a dry archipelago of islands off the coast of West Africa known mainly for tourism. Pires, who was appointed prime minister at independence in 1975, was elected twice more in 2001 and 2006. Now aged 77, he stepped down from office in September to focus on writing his memoirs, including his efforts to wean Cape Verde off large crippling public debts.

In addition to a prize for good governance, the Mo Ibrahim Foundation also ranks the 54 countries of Africa according to their relative performance on different criteria, including “safety and rule of law,” “participation and human rights,” “sustainable economic opportunity,” and “human development.”

The tiny island nation of Mauritius leads this year’s Ibrahim Index of top performing nations, followed by Cape Verde, Botswana, Seychelles, and South Africa.

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