Languages of Power and Cabo Verde’s 2016 Elections | by Abel Djassi Amado

“In Cabo Verde, there is a critical struggle emerging between the official language of political power: Portuguese, and the language of the people: Cabo Verdean Creole.”

 Credit: Emanuel Sousa
The billboards of the two major political party candidates in Cabo Verde’s September 2016 mayoral elections in Praia. The billboard on the right, for the PAICV candidate, Cristina Fontes, reads in Creole: “Praia mutu midjor” (Praia much better). The one on the left, for the MpD candidate, Oscar Santos, states also in Creole: “Na equipa qui ta ganha ca ta mexedu” (a winning team cannot be moved). Credit: Emanuel Sousa.

Electoral periods in many places, from the start of official campaigning to a few days or weeks after the elections, are a unique time. For one, election day itself becomes a practical celebration of political participation, and tends to take on the aura of a national day. In Cabo Verde, election day has become an important tool in the process of fabricating and imagining the nation.

In Cabo Verde, to meet international standards of fluency in Portuguese is to hold a key that can unlock most of the “doors” to the public corridors of power.

At no other time does one find such a large quantity of unidirectional political communication from the political class downwards to the masses. Much of this communication is symbolic – through the use of flags and national colours, for example. However, most political communication is carried through the medium of language; whether in its oral or written forms. In Cabo Verde, there is a critical struggle emerging between the official language of political power: Portuguese, and the language of the people: Cabo Verdean Creole.

Prior to the arrival of electoral democracy in Cabo Verde in 1991, the country’s political regime was that of one-party rule. 2016 marks only the sixth round of multi-party elections on the islands. If the parliamentary elections that were held on the 20th of March this year as well as the recent municipal elections on the 3rd of September, are anything to go by, the importance of language in Cabo Verde’s political communication cannot be ignored. It will prove as equally important in the upcoming presidential elections in October.

The Power of the Inherited Colonial Language

There are two major languages in the public sphere in Cabo Verde: indigenous Cabo Verdean Creole and Portuguese. Inherited as a result of Cabo Verde’s colonial experience, Portuguese has become the country’s official language. As the language of public administration, education, and other official functions of the state, Portuguese is the dominant language of the land. Internally, this conveys prestige and social status to its fluent speakers. Externally, the adoption of Portuguese crucially marks the Cabo Verdean state in the international arena as a Lusophone state, or a PALOP (the Portuguese acronym for an African Country with Portuguese as its official language).

Ironically – and despite the implied wishes of Cabo Verde’s constitution, public political life during elections periods now increasingly happens in the Cabo Verdean Creole.

In Cabo Verde, to meet international standards of fluency in Portuguese is to hold a key that can unlock most of the “doors” to the public corridors of power. To be fluent in Portuguese is not only to have an important social privilege but, consequently, an economic and material one. In Cabo Verde, Portuguese is the language of power, of prestige, and of the fabled coming of political and economic modernity. But as in many other African countries, only but a privileged minority are completely fluent in the inherited language of colonial experience. In Cabo Verde, there are very few fluent speakers of Portuguese; and those who do speak it, tend to be Portuguese or Brazilian citizens.

Despite Cabo Verdean Creole being the mother tongue of nearly the entire population of Cabo Verde, the country’s constitution maintains Portuguese as its official language. In other words, the constitution perpetuates an asymmetrical relationship between the two languages. This asymmetry corresponds to a situation in Cabo Verde whereby each language is marked out for different functions, with Portuguese protected for more formal and prestigious functions. In linguistics, this situation is called diglossia.

The names of streets and of government buildings will not testify to the fact that linguistically Cabo Verde is Creole, not ‘Lusophone’

The Ironic Language of Elections

Despite Portuguese being the dominant official language, electoral democracy has enabled elites to discover the political utility of Cabo Verdean Creole. By forcing the opening of the public sphere, electoral democracy has enabled Creole to be used as an instrument in the formal political process.

The elites, competing for popular votes, realize that their chances of winning are correlated with strategies that resonate with the masses. Ironically – and despite the implied wishes of Cabo Verde’s constitution – public political life during election periods now increasingly happens in Cabo Verdean Creole.

The rising dominance of Creole is visible from billboards, to slogans, to public speeches at electoral rallies. As a result, electoral periods in Cabo Verde have come to camouflage the linguistic status quo, freezing the diglossia that characterizes the true asymmetric relationship between Portuguese and Cabo Verdean Creole.

In Cabo Verde, Portuguese is the language of power, of prestige, and of the fabled coming of political and economic modernity.

It is a situation in which Cabo Verde’s political elites have hijacked a language that, in reality, they have consistently failed to protect or respect. The use of language has been carefully constructed and fabricated by competing political elites as part of a carefully designed strategy to conquer the electorate. It is a particular form of political manipulation for electoral gains.

The elite’s manipulations can also be seen in its use of fashionable urban slang that has usually been made popular by the youth. Cabo Verde, like most other African states, is characterized by what can be termed ‘the electoral youth bulge’. Demographic data from the National Institute of Statistics (INE) indicates that close to 40% of the population is aged between 15 and 34. This same age group represents approximately two thirds of the entire eligible voting population.

Youth unemployment is up from 21.3% in 2010 to 35.8% in 2014. But despite this, and possibly as a result of such high unemployment rates, the youth in Cabo Verde remain an inventive and imaginative group. One of the avenues through which this creativeness has been employed has been in the invention of catchphrases, which office-seekers – aware of the electoral weight of the youth – have politicized to their own ends.

More and more, political parties are co-opting the catchphrases of the urban youth and deploying them as electoral emblems. Take, for example, the party insignia of Ulisses Correia e Silva, the leader of the then opposition MpD, during the March 2016 legislative elections; on which appeared the catchphrase sen djobi pa ladu (literally, “not seeing to the sides”). This expression was made by an animated cartoon developed by young Cabo Verdeans living in Europe.

More recently, for the municipal elections earlier this month, Cristina Fontes, the PAICV candidate for the capital city of Praia, seized the catchphrase txoma minis (“call the guys”). The expression, like the one cited above, was made popular by the song ‘Txoma Minis’ by the band Sakis de Praia that became a hit among urban youngsters in Cabo Verde.

political elites have hijacked a language that, in reality, they have consistently failed to protect or respect.

These linguistic co-optations have the ultimate political objective of capturing the country’s youth electorate. An electorate to which, the political class in Cabo Verde, has historically done nothing but talk down to. This process of linguistic co-optation relates to what the French sociologist, Pierre Bourdieu calls the strategy of condescending. That is, “the very act of negating symbolically the objective relation of power between two languages which co-exist in [the] market.”

The deployment of these catchphrases, and other Creole symbols, are part of carefully designed strategies that attempt to strengthen the connection between the youth and political candidates and their parties. Ultimately, the goal is not to capture this segment of the population through concrete policy proposals, but rather through hollow charisma.

Although the wielding of Creole in official Cabo Verdean politics may appear a welcome and positive development, it speaks to a longer-term problem. The language of electoral politics is notoriously transient. Promises and slogans are here one day, and if they even make it till election day, they very rarely stay thereafter. The party political platforms, electoral posters, billboards, and other electoral paraphernalia on which Cabo Verdean Creole is now written, will be torn down after the elections are over. The television and radio spots, video-clips, and speeches, in which politicians now find it useful to speak in Creole, will not be listened to for long.

In contrast, the more permanent elements of the country’s political and cultural landscape where language plays a crucial part will, in Cabo Verde, continue to be expressed in Portuguese. The names of streets and of government buildings will not testify to the fact that linguistically Cabo Verde is Creole, not ‘Lusophone’; and so the power of Cabo Verdean Creole, and the power of the near totality of the population who speaks it, will remain subjugated.

Abel Djassi Amado is a native of Cabo Verde. He is Assistant Professor of Political Science and International Relations at Simmons College, Boston. He is also a board member of the West African Research Association, a network of scholars with a focus on West Africa.

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