JOHANNESBURG (AP) — A $5 million award for good leadership in Africa that was withheld the previous two years because of a lack of qualified candidates was finally bestowed Monday to Cape Verde's former president for promoting democracy and development on his archipelago.
The Mo Ibrahim prize committee said that during his decade in power, Pedro Verona Pires had helped lead the tiny nation off the western coast of Africa out of poverty. And he left at the end of his second term in office earlier this year, dismissing the possibility of removing term limits from the constitution.
"Cape Verde is now seen as an African success story, economically, socially and politically," the prize citation said.
The prize was created in 2007 but this is only the third time it's been presented, with the committee saying other years that no leaders met the criteria. The prize is open only to democratically elected heads of state who have left office in the past three years.
"It is recognition of my 50 years of wholesale and exclusive dedication to politics, and the causes of independence and democracy," Pires told Portuguese news agency Lusa in Cidade da Praia, the capital of this former Portuguese colony.
Pires, 77, also was among the West African leaders who tried to mediate the political crisis in Ivory Coast, where the incumbent refused to concede defeat, leading to months of bloody conflict that killed thousands earlier this year.
The prize has shown a spotlight on countries that don't often make headlines: Cape Verde is probably best known as the homeland of Grammy-award winning singer Cesaria Evora.
Cape Verde is a cluster of islands home to just 500,000 people. With beaches and a dramatic mountain landscape, it has long relied on tourism to build its economy.
But it's been so successful in doing so that the United Nations said in 2007 that Cape Verde was no longer among the world's least developed countries. According to the U.N., life expectancy in Cape Verde is nearly 72 years — well above AIDS-hit South Africa's 52 years or West African neighbor Senegal's 56 years.
The literacy rate among adults in Cape Verde is 84 percent, compared to 42 percent for Senegal and close to much more developed South Africa's 89 percent.
"It's clear that Pedro Pires had a very strong sense of service to his people," former Irish President Mary Robinson, a member of the Ibrahim Prize committee, told The Associated Press.
Mozambique's former President Joaquim Chissano, who won the first Ibrahim prize in 2007, added a personal note, telling reporters Monday that he had known Pires since both were fighting Portuguese rule in Africa in the 1960s. Chissano made the call to inform Pires he had won after the committee made its unanimous decision Sunday.
"He is a man who does not like violence," Chissano said. "But he was a general, he became a general in the liberation struggle, because he did not like also to see the atrocities committed by colonialism."
Pires was appointed independent Cape Verde's first prime minister in 1975. He remained in the post for 16 years, then lost his country's first democratic elections in 1991. Pires was then elected in 2001 and again five years later. He retired from public life last month so he could work on writing his memoirs.
The only other Ibrahim winner is Festus Mogae of Botswana, who as president campaigned to lower the HIV infection rate in his country. Former South African President Nelson Mandela was named an honorary laureate of the prize in 2007.
The prize created in 2007 by Sudan-born billionaire Mo Ibrahim awards each winner $5 million over 10 years and $200,000 annually for life thereafter.
Some might see the prize's history as evidence of how hard the committee has to search to find leaders who meet its standards. Critics have accused Ibrahim of being condescending, and of rewarding politicians merely for doing their jobs. Ibrahim told reporters Monday he was rewarding excellence, noting he had twice withheld the award.