“the institutional mechanisms that were intended to buttress participation by ordinary citizens’ are either lacking or have simply become part of the pays légal (legal country) without any repercussions in the pays réel (real country).”
To bilateral and multilateral foreign donors, the islands of Cabo Verde, West Africa, represent one of the few democratic exceptions on the continent. In the past twenty years, the country has been hailed as an example of liberal democracy and good governance. More recently, President Obama praised the country as an exemplary model of democracy to Africa. Similar statements have been made by a myriad Western policy makers; and international ratings organizations such as Freedom House classify the country as ‘free.’ The systems of the political class, and the deprivation of the masses who have been excluded from any real public engagement, may, however, suggest an altogether different story.
The image of the country as a place of good governance and democracy in West Africa has been carefully and intelligently used by the national government as a foreign policy tool. In this way, Bruce Baker, a professor at Coventry University who specializes in Cabo Verdean politics, argues that Cape Verde has made ‘good governance’ one of its most marketable products.
Consequently, relatively large amounts of foreign aid has been poured into the country. The country has applied and received grant money from the Millennium Challenge Account, a programme created by former US president George H. Bush. The European Union, whose foundations are explicitly based on the principles of shared cultural values and good governance, has entered into a special agreement with Cabo Verde.
The state has become a tool for the elite’s primitive accumulation of capital.
The reality, however, may not be as rosy as the image conveyed internationally. Analysing what tends to characterise political behaviour and political processes in Cabo Verde reveals a country that is increasingly moving away from the ideals of good governance and true democracy.
Cabo Verde can be classified as an example of a Potemkin village democracy: superficially democratic but behind the scenes, ordinary citizens are far from having any real and effective power over political processes and operations.
A Brief Political History
The islands of Cabo Verde were part of the Portuguese colonial empire for over five hundred years. In the 1960s, anti-colonial nationalists from Cabo Verde and Guinea-Bissau joined forces to form the African Party for the Independence of Guinea [Bissau] and Cabo Verde (PAIGC). Under the leadership of Amilcar Cabral, the PAIGC led the armed national liberation struggle of the two countries.
The ultimate political objectives were the national independence of the two colonies and subsequent political union. National independence was finally reached in 1975 and the PAIGC ruled over both Cabo Verde and Guinea-Bissau. The November 1980 coup d’état in Guinea-Bissau shattered Cabral’s dream of a political union between the two countries. The PAIGC was disbanded in Cabo Verde and in its place a new party, the PAICV, was formed.
In Cabo Verde, to win an election is to have almost unconstrained power to do whatever without referring to citizens. The notion that true democracy rests on effective, engaging, and multi-modal political participation does not apply here.
Throughout the 1980s, Cabo Verde like many states in Africa was a one-party state under the PAICV. By the end of that decade, as it became increasingly difficult to sustain the one-party regime throughout Africa and elsewhere, the PAICV opted for political opening (abertura política).
Multi-party elections were held in 1991 resulting in the defeat of the incumbent party and the rise of the MpD (Movement for Democracy), a political movement originally created with ranks from civil society and dissenters from the PAIGC. Political transition in Cabo Verde also incorporated symbolic and policy changes. For one, the symbols of the state (the flag, national anthem, and the like) were completely changed to reflect a new direction in Cabo Verde. At the same time, the new government embraced almost in its entirety the fever of ‘the market’, opting for neo-liberal economic policies.
The MpD was voted out of power in 2001, and the PAICV, under the new leadership of José Maria Neves, reassumed the wheels of government. The PAICV has won all the past three legislative elections. Giovanni Sartori defines a dominant party system as when one party wins three consecutive elections. So it seems that contrary to being a true liberal democracy, Cabo Verde can indeed be defined as an example of a dominant party system.
Behind the Potemkin village’s Curtain
A shrewd observer of politics in Cabo Verde will find it easy to note the cracks in the superficial plaster of good governance and electoral democracy. A closer inspection of three major political elements (the state, political participation, and political accountability) indicates the democratic Potemkin village that is Cabo Verde.
Politicians are a protected class forming what I call, the “super Cabo Verdeans.” In actuality, they are above the law.
The Cabo Verdean post-colonial state presents itself as developmental; that is, a state critically able to effectively promote an increase in socio-economic development. Emphasis is given to building the foundational infrastructures. Roads, ports, airports, and dams were built and/or expanded as part of the new ‘developmentality’.
While few would negate the socio-economic value of this kind of infrastructure building, in so far as major public works in the developing (and developed) world remain ideal sites for the corruption and embezzlement of public monies, many of these public constructions as they were carried out in Cabo Verde, were in reality true white elephants. Costly and scarcely used by the citizenry.
Take, for instance, the road that links Mindelo to Baia via Calhau in the island of São Vicente or the road linking Cidade Velha to the main road in the city of Assomada, in the island of Santiago. Prima facie, these roads are the representation of modernity and progress. They were built using the most advanced road construction techniques and technologies. Needless to say that, as a consequence, their price tags were astronomical. A simple cost-benefit analysis would reveal them to be empty of any real value to majority of the population. The road is rarely used and there is not enough motor vehicle traffic to justify their existence in the first place.
Citizens’ voices, limited to the ballot, are only to be heard every four years.
Concomitantly, the state in Cabo Verde has become increasingly neo-patrimonial. If neo-patrimonial politics is defined by certain behaviours among the state’s elite that make it difficult to draw a visible line between the public and the private, then it is clear that the exception the late scholar Patrick Chabal made of Cabo Verdean politics in the early 2000s no longer applies. For examples of neo-patrimonialism in the Cabo Verdean political landscape abound.
the tendency to take electoral participation as the most meaningful form of civic political engagement is confirmed and buttressed by international policy circles preoccupied with the ‘justness’ and ‘fairness’ of elections.
In 2010, Prime Minister José Maria Neves wrote a cheque of ten thousand dollars to help pay the cost of his party comrade attending college in the United States—in spite of existing institutional mechanisms for scholarship support. More recently, cabinet member Janira Hoppfer Almada (now the leader of the PAICV) was found using the state as a dowry; nominating his then fiancé to a high-echelon position in one of the state’s largest parastatals.
As neo-patrimonialism is often accompanied by its dear cousin clientelism, examples of this pathological social practice are no less easy to find in Cabo Verde. Recruitment to high-level positions in the state and parastatals has become almost always reserved for “comrades, clients and cousins”—to use Gerhard Seibert’s expression. The state has become a tool for the elite’s primitive accumulation of capital.
In Cabo Verde, to win an election is to have almost unconstrained power to do whatever without referring to citizens. The notion that true democracy rests on effective, engaging, and multi-modal political participation does not apply here. Here, the tendency to take electoral participation as the most meaningful form of civic political engagement is confirmed and buttressed by international policy circles preoccupied with the ‘justness’ and ‘fairness’ of elections.
Citizens’ voices, limited to the ballot, are only to be heard every four years. In between election days they are ‘invited’ to stew in the comfort of their private lives excluded from influencing the actions of the state. Given the levels of unemployment and poverty, private life is rather a discomfort for many. And the hopes of altering it by public engagement are open to them once; every four years. Those major policies, public works – those things that completely change the landscape and often result in gentrification – are almost always decided upon without any input from the general populace.
Since 1991, the year of the country’s first multi-party elections, which were taken by all as the opening of what is often called the Second Republic, no politician has ever had to face prison. And this is not because none deserved to.
Further, the institutional mechanisms that were intended to buttress participation by ordinary citizens’ are either lacking or have simply become part of the pays légal (legal country) without any repercussions in the pays réel (real country). Cabo Verde’s almost two and a half decade experience with electoral democracy has produced no mechanism of public hearing at the national and local government levels. While the constitution makes reference to referendum and citizens’ legislative initiative, neither has been regulated nor ever practiced.
When it comes to political accountability, Cabo Verde is an example of a Potemkin village democracy. Since 1991, the year of the country’s first multi-party elections, which were taken by all as the opening of what is often called the Second Republic, no politician has ever had to face prison. And this is not because none deserved to.
There have been few instances where some politicians have been summoned to the courts on accusations of corruption. These resulted in nothing concrete. Politicians are a protected class forming what I call, the “super Cabo Verdeans.” In actuality, they are above the law. For they can make every type of public statement without fearing reprisals or inviting investigation from the office of the attorney general. Many live ostentatiously and/or engage in conspicuous consumption without having to explain the origins of their wealth.
A Tale of Two Countries
The Cabo Verde of international policy circles looks to be one that does not correspond to the Cabo Verde of Capo Verdeans. This is a distinction that seems to be supported not just by the international community that funds the financial transfers on which the country is highly dependent, but also by an elite class that has skilfully built a democratic Potemkin village, presented as the exchange token for developmental assistance.
It may well be that the international donor community is far from being interested in participatory democracy in the developing world. It is far easier to dictate reforms to a regime that can technically be classified as ‘democratic’ and ‘free’ through electoral procedures than to demand a system sustained by a powerful citizenry whose engagement goes well beyond the ballot box. Though ordinary Cabo Verdeans may not be grateful for the relationship between the elite and the international policy community that sustains this negative pattern of politics in the country, we can be sure that the political class are.
Abel Djassi is a native of Cabo Verde. He holds a doctorate in Political Science from Boston University. Abel is a lecturer of ‘African Politics’ and ‘Politics of Race and Ethnicity’ at Boston College. He is also a board member of the West African Research Association, a network of scholars with a focus on West Africa.