Every now and then a leader comes along who is an example to developing countries the world over. One of these is the former president Pedro Pires of Cape Verde. This is his story.
“Hide nothing from the masses of our people. Tell no lies. Expose lies whenever they are told. Mask no difficulties, mistakes, failures. Claim no easy victories.” – Amilcar Cabral
On the many occasions I have met President Pires, he is accompanied by his wife, Adelcia Barreto Pires, and his two daughters, Sara and Indira. He seems the picture-postcard family man, a refined statesman oozing warm humility. And that is what gives him his love of his people and the strength of his leadership. In the ten years he was president (2001-2011), he transformed Cape Verde from a barren island poor in natural resources, with little arable land, into a model of democracy, stability and increased prosperity.
His country was in shambles a little more than a decade ago. Cape Verde has few natural resources, a population of around 500,000 scattered over more than 10 islands. Pires is a quiet person, humble and honest, someone you wouldn’t notice if you walked down an empty street; but he was a man with leadership skills that could hush a cyclone. In 2007, six years into his term of office, Cape Verde was judged advanced enough to no longer be regarded as a Least Developed Country by the United Nations. It was a remarkable endorsement of sustained economic growth and good management.
As a young man, Pedro Verona Rodrigues Pires was influenced by Amilcar Cabral, who led the PAIGC’s guerrilla movement (in Portuguese Guinea and Cape Verde) against the Portuguese government, which evolved into one of the most successful wars of independence in modern African history. Leaving Portugal, he joined Cabral working in Senegal and France to recruit Caboverdian patriots and lead the armed struggle in Cape Verde.
With the proclamation of the Independence of Guinée-Bissau in September of 1973, Pedro Pires assumed control of the Armed Forces, helping to guide Cape Verde to its birth as a separate nation. He was appointed Cape Verde’s first Prime Minister in 1975. In February of 1990, envisioning the need for a radical change in the political system, Pires led the process of introducing the multi-party system in Cape Verde. He lost that election and became leader of the opposition. But he remained committed to the political changes and the democratic outcome.
In September 2000, he announced his candidature to the Presidency of the Republic of Cape Verde. Winning that election, he led the country for ten years, ensuring the nation became only the second African state to graduate from the United Nation’s Least Developed category. It has won international recognition for its record on human rights and good governance.
He has won widespread respect for the emphasis given 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, economically, socially and politically. According to the IMF, real GDP grew annually between 2000 and 2009 by over six percent, well above the average for both sub-Saharan African 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 percent and life expectancy of more than 70 years. Although poverty and unemployment remain a challenge, the country is well on track to meet its targets under the Millennium Development Goals.
His stewardship won Cape Verde international recognition as one of Africa’s most stable democracies. For 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 and the Rule of Law, Participation and Rights, Sustainable Economic Opportunity and Human Development – in a balanced way. It regularly figures at the top of international league tables on press freedom, human rights and democracy.
President Pires’ democratic credentials were further enhanced when he announced he was stepping down at the end of his second term. Dismissing outright suggestions that the constitution could be altered to allow him to stand again, he said: “This is a simple matter of faithfulness to the documents that guide a state of law.”
Throughout his long career President Pires has been dedicated to the service of his people, including those in the diaspora, while retaining his humility and personal integrity. That is why he was awarded the Mo Ibrahim Foundation Prize for Achievement in African Leadership (2011).
A celebrated liberation hero, he remains deeply engaged. In a lecture at UNISA in 2011 on the occasion of the 4th Annual Thabo Mbeki Africa Day lectures, he reflected on the course of liberation struggles, saying “Ultimately the goal of our struggle is the relentless pursuit of the future; but what future?”
He added: “A future where we are not just subjects and the subordinates to the decisions and desires of others… a future that makes us stronger, freer, more qualified, prosperous, just and brotherly, in a fairer, safer, more balanced, peaceful and predictable world.”
Perceptively, he flagged a dire challenge facing Africa, that of “the persistent poles of armed conflict and institutional instability on the continent. The old risks remain, and new risks have emerged.”
“We should listen very carefully to the wise words of a generation of liberators who have remained true to the vision they have had and a life they have lived of humility and service to the interests of their people.”
As the iconic Amilcar Cabral said, “Always bear in mind that the people are not fighting for ideas, for the things in anyone’s head. They are fighting to win material benefits, to live better and in peace, to see their lives go forward, to guarantee the future of their children…”
And wisely, he cautioned activists with the wisdom: “Practice revolutionary democracy in every aspect of our Party life. Every responsible member must have the courage of his responsibilities, exacting from others a proper respect for his work and properly respecting the work of others.”
President Pedro Verona Pires followed this advice and served his people well. He is a leader I would vote for, a role model we need in Africa; and the world. DM
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