Gregory L. Garland serves as the Charge d Affaires at the U.S. Embassy in Praia, Cape Verde.
Americans learn in high school that one of the greatest acts in our history happened when George Washington declined, twice, the opportunity to stay in power. The first time came at the end of the long war for independence where, instead of accepting a title of nobility and possible kingship, Washington famously took off his uniform and returned to Mt. Vernon a civilian. Called back into service as president, Washington again said no when pressured to run for a third term, setting a precedent that became a part of the U.S. Constitution.
We celebrate Washington because he, more than anyone, assured us a legacy in which the Constitution, not a personality, remains central to who we are. As a nation, we remain skeptical of those who would concentrate power in one office or one person.
Seeking a way to nurture the same tradition of democratic rule of law and abnegation of personality on his continent, self-made Sudanese billionaire Mo Ibrahim decided to use his vast fortune to celebrate the George Washingtons of Africa. He established the Mo Ibrahim Prize for Achievement in African Leadership to honor leaders who have said no to unending power. These leaders have set the example of depersonalized politics and alternation of office so desperately needed in societies struggling to build institutions that are greater than the sum of individuals.
So Far Only Three Winners
Only three men have received the prize of $5 million dollars — Festus Mogae of Botswana, Joaquim Chissano of Mozambique, and now Cape Verde’s former President, Prime Minister and veteran political figure Pedro Pires. Pires, 77, won the award for his contribution to Cape Verde as a “model of democracy, stability, and increased prosperity.” Specifically, the award cited his influence in assuring Cape Verde’s successful transition in the early 1990s from one-party to multi-party governance. Pires first learned of his award during his daily workout at a gym. In his typically modest fashion, Pires spoke to reporters emphasizing the Cape Verdean nation, not his own individual role and politely begged the reporters to let him finish his exercise routine.
Asked later in the day how he planned to use the money, Pires answered that he would use some of it to write his memoirs. And what memoirs they would be! Pires was a major figure not just in Cape Verdean, but in African history in general. In 1991, the then-dominant liberation party, the African Party for the Independence of Cape Verde (PAICV), lost the parliamentary and presidential elections. Under his leadership as General Secretary, the PAICV gracefully ceded power to the opposition, setting a timely and important example not only for the country, but for the continent.
Don’t Forget the Africa of 20 Years Ago
Consider for a moment the state of Africa two decades ago. In the wake of the fall of the Berlin Wall, strongmen dominated much of the continent. Despite tentative olive branches, the white-minority apartheid apparatus still clung to power in South Africa with the barrel of a gun. Chissano’s Mozambique had suffered a gruesome civil war and seemed set for a generation of violent retribution. It was at this moment that the wind of democratic change in Cape Verde began to blow across Africa. The Cape Verdean model of the strongman and his party stepping down after electoral defeat set the standard for such countries as South Africa and Mozambique. The vitality of the Cape Verdean democracy, so recently demonstrated in a hotly contested presidential contest to succeed Pires, remains a refreshing tonic for Africans struggling to find a lasting democratic way forward.
Aristides Pereira: Gone But Not Forgotten
No praise of Pires, however, should go without mention of his long-time comrade in arms, colleague in peace, and mentor in politics, Aristides Pereira, who passed away on September 22 at the age of 86. Pereira and Pires fought under the Cape Verde/Guinea-Bissau liberation movement’s founder and leader, Amilcar Cabral in Guinea-Bissau. They knew much of the liberation-era leadership of Mozambique and Angola as well, including Chissano, who watched closely what the Cape Verdeans were achieving. For most of Pereira’s tenure as president, Pires was prime minister. Together, they directed Cape Verde out of five centuries of suffocating colonialism and into policies that have achieved a high rate of literacy; strong, consistent market-based economic growth; judicious regional leadership; and democratic rule of law at home. Together, they said yes to democracy and gracefully stepped aside at the decision of the voters. In Cape Verde itself, the four-day mourning for Pereira has in many ways set the stage for Pires’s award.
George Washington himself would have understood Pires. He fought against the French before fighting with them. He fought with the British before fighting against them. He swore fealty to the king before rejecting all royalty. And when all was said and done, he said no to being King George, American-style. He said no to being President-for-Life, and chose again to be Citizen Washington. Congratulations, Citizen Pires!
This blog can be found at : http://blogs.state.gov/index.php/site/entry/pires_mo_ibrahim_prize