By Paul Ejime
The 17th October, 2021 presidential election in Cabo Verde was not only peaceful, but a clear demonstration of an electoral success by all standards. The poll results were electronically transmitted with the provisional outcome made public within three hours of close of votes.
The front-runner immediately conceded defeat and congratulated the winner with no acrimonies among supporters of the seven contestants. In acknowledging the credible and transparent process, the ECOWAS and African Union Observation Missions lauded the political maturity of Cabo Verdeans.
But it was not the first time that the mountainous Archipelago nation, which has a reputation for political stability, would record such a feat.
As part of the ECOWAS Observation Mission Core Team, supported by GIZ, Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (German Development Cooperation Agency), this writer witnessed the electoral process unfold, from the pre to during and the post-election stages, including the campaigns and televised political debate.
Some might argue that Cabo Verde is a small West African country with an estimated 550,000 people scattered across nine of the 10 habitable islands and five islets. It shares only maritime borders with three countries – Senegal, the Gambia and Guinea Bissau – with which it missed forming a united nation, and no ethnic/tribal challenges, with Christianity as the dominant religion, while the people speak mainly Creole and Portuguese.
But the fact that since its independence from Portugal in July 1975, the country has had seven peaceful multiparty elections from 1991 with the latest vote producing its fifth national president, speaks volume about leadership and deliberate national efforts at deepening sustainable governance systems.
Beginning with the grundnorm – the national Constitution and the electoral framework – coupled with the strict respect and studious application of the relevant instruments, the administration of the affairs of state in the insular country is admirable.
With no major natural resources, Cabo Verde endures prolonged bouts of droughts and crop-failures with a cumulative one-month of rainfall in a year.
Tourism, which accounted for about 25% of the country’s GDP, has taken a serious hit since the COVID-19 outbreak two years ago.
The annual budget of about US$ 855 million now relies heavily on remittances from Cabo Verde’s large diaspora population for much of its foreign currency component.
From 2008, Cabo Verde became only the second country after Botswana to be promoted by the United Nations out of the ranks of the 50 least developed countries and until the COVID episode, the nation witnessed national economic growth averaging 6%, with the construction of three international airports and hundreds of kilometres of roads.
Jose Maria Neves, 61, who superintended over that growth as prime minister (2001-2016), has won the October 17 presidential election with 51.75% of the valid vote in the first round. He has to work with a prime minister from an opposing party on the critical national economic recovery amid the reported resurgence of the COVID infections on the islands’ nation.
Cabo Verde has eight political parties, but the two major ones, the ruling MpD and the opposition PAICV have alternated power between them since 1991.
The Archipelago’s Armed Forces comprise 1,200 personnel in the National Guard, plus 200 Coast Guard and 100 in the Air Force (which organisationally comes under the Coast Guard). The 300 police personnel deployed for electoral duties on October 17 belong to the country’s estimated 1,947 law enforcement officers, including the Public Order Police, the Border Police, the Customs Police, and the Maritime Police.
The country operates a semi-parliamentary system where the Prime Minister dominates the executive, with the President, as an arbitrator, who can veto appointments such as government Ministers, Ambassadors or the country’s representatives in international organizations.
The President of the Republic as the highest paid public officer earns the equivalent of US$3,233 per month, including accommodation and other allowances. The Prime Minister and the President of the National Assembly, each gets 90% of that amount, while cabinet Ministers receive 80%, and MPs, 75%, in that order.
Both sitting President and Prime Minister live in apartments which enables them to draw the accommodation subsidy. The president is entitled to three official vehicles with a pilot motorbike and travels abroad on commercial flights. To avoid political interference, a sitting president whether or not s/he is running suspends his/her term, once s/he declares his/her candidacy, and resumes after the announcement of the election results. The President of Parliament acts as national president during the suspension.
Cabo Verde has elected municipal administrators including Mayors and a 72-seat Parliament. The party with the majority MPs in Parliament produces the Prime Minister who then forms the government at the national level.
An elected president can serve for two consecutive terms of five years each, but only allowed to return for another shot after a five-year interval.
Presidential candidates sponsor themselves with political parties providing support in the background. For instance, the opposition PAICV supported Neves, while the ruling MpD supported his defeated rival Carlos Alberto Veiga, 72, who received 42.39% of the vote in the October poll.
Candidates for elective offices in Cabo Verde are not required to pay election fees or deposits, but instead, are given 750 Escudos (about 8 U.S. dollars) for every vote received, after an audit of the campaign and political party finances. This reduces the negative influence of money in the electoral process.
Government institutions respect the separation of functions. The National Electoral Commission, CNE is charged with the conduct and regulation of elections within the national territory and in the diaspora.
The General Directorate for Support to the Electoral Process, DGAPE, handles logistics and other support elements toward ensuring successful electoral operations and management of the electoral database. It collaborates closely with 22 Voter Registration Commissions, CREs, in charge of registration of eligible voters.
After struggling with the generation of its voter registration database from 1995, Cabo Verde found an innovative way around the challenge. Until a national biometric data is updated, eligible voters at home and in the diaspora are allowed to vote on the presentation of their valid National ID Cards or International Passports.
There is also a Communication Regulatory Authority, ARC, which ensures strict compliance with the provisions of the Electoral Code on free and fair access for candidates to public and private media. Private media are prohibited from offering space or time to political actors for money. Hate speech and attack against political opponents are outlawed, with the CNE as the sole institution vested with the authority to announce the official results of elections.
The ARC guarantees freedom of expression and regulates media activities. It is independent of political power, and autonomous in its administrative and financial management.
Other African countries can also learn one or two lessons from the Praia NOSI, Nucleo Operacional da Sociedade de Informacao in Portuguese – a centralised data system that provides digital solutions to Cabo Verde’s government institutions.
The Centre started in 1998 as RAFE (Coordination Unit of the Draft Reform of State Financial Administration). It transformed to NOSI in 2004, and is now largely responsible for the country’s advancement in e-government with improved outcomes in sectors such as health, education, municipal governance, financial management and electronic transmission of election results.
After the certification of results by the candidates’ agents, polling officials at the 1,298 polling stations transmitted results of the October 17 vote to the CNE/DGAPE database with their electronic Tablet device.
The Eleições Presidenciais de 2021 Cabo Verde website set up by CNE and DGAPE, and powered by the NOSI then provided real-time provisional results, which were accessible to the public immediately at the close of balloting.
The CNE eventually announced the official results six days after the poll, which was within the constitutionally allowed 10-day interval.
There is no perfect election. So there are necessarily some issues around the just-ended presidential vote in Cabo Verde, including the relatively low voter turn-out, which the CNE put at 47.99%. An abstention rate of 52.01% in a presidential vote, if not addressed through sensitization/mobilization to raise citizen political participation, could cast doubts on the legitimacy of the electoral process or undermine the confidence of the electorate. The abstention rate was about 60% in the 2016 presidential election.
Also, the CNE and DGAPE tried to push back on an allegation of vote-buying made by one of the leading presidential candidates, insisting that there was no evidence to back the claim. But such a serious allegation deserves investigation and remedial measures before it becomes intractable.
Similarly, despite efforts on gender mainstreaming in the country, including the enactment of a Parity Law in 2019, there was no female candidate among the seven that ran for president on October 17.
With 27 female MPs (37.5%) of the total 72; nine female cabinet Ministers out of 28; and only one female Mayor out of 22, the country could do more on gender parity, which now only applies to the list of candidates for elections (participation). It should be extended to the representation of women, who represent 51.43% of the country’s 398,690 registered voters.
Also, 28 ministers for a country of less than a million people are considered expensive by some Cabo Verdeans. So, the new president must work with the prime minister for a slimmer and more cost-effective cabinet.
By and large, from its governance systems and the outcome of the latest election, given that there will always be room for improvement; Cabo Verde arguably remains a bastion of political stability in Africa, especially at a time when some countries on the continent are witnessing democratic reversals and a resurgence of military coups.
*Paul Ejime is an Independent Consultant to International Organizations on Strategic Communications, Media, Elections and a Global Affairs Expert