JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - Former Cape Verde president Pedro Verona Pires won the $5 million Mo Ibrahim award for African leadership Monday for shepherding his tiny Atlantic Ocean island state from autocracy to prosperous democracy.
Organizers of the award, established in 2006 by Sudanese telecoms tycoon Mo Ibrahim to improve the quality of African governments, also praised Pires for his decision this year not to run for office again after the expiry of his second term.
"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 dignity," the award committee said in a statement.
Previous winners of the prize, which can only be awarded to an African head of state who has peacefully left office, include Mozambique's Joaquim Chissano and Botswana's Festus Mogae.
There were no winners in 2009 and 2010 because of a lack of suitable candidates, Organizers said.
Pires was prominent in Cape Verde's struggle for independence from Portugal, and became prime minister in 1975, a position that allowed him to pave the way toward the first democratic elections in 1991.
Cape Verde, which has a population of 500,000, also fared well in the "Ibrahim Index" of African governance released alongside the leadership award.
The five best-ranked countries were Mauritius, Cape Verde, Botswana, Seychelles and South Africa, while the bottom five were Somalia, Chad, Zimbabwe, Democratic Republic of Congo and Central African Republic.
Significant gainers were Liberia and Sierra Leone, climbing to 36th and 30th spots respectively as both West African states continued to distance themselves from civil wars that ended less than a decade ago.
The biggest loser was in the Indian Ocean island of Madagascar, which slipped to 33rd, reflecting the political and economic upheaval that has persisted since a 2009 coup.
Africa's two areas of poorest progress were "Safety and the rule of law" and "Participation and human rights."
Just 14 countries moved up the scale in the latter category -- a finding Ibrahim said meant Africa would remain fertile ground for the spread of north Africa-style uprisings.
"That reversal in the rights of citizens must be stopped," he told a news conference. "If you don't believe me, just look at (Cairo's) Tahrir Square."
Reporting by Ed Cropley; Editing by Giles Elgood