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No Mo Ibrahim Prize has been awarded again this year but the continent has more exemplary leaders than ever, says Thebe Ikalafeng.
Johannesburg - This week, for a second consecutive year, the Mo Ibrahim Foundation’s committee of eminent persons resolved there was no African leader deemed worthy of the $5 million (R49m) Ibrahim Prize for Achievement in African Leadership. It is the fourth time there has been no winner in its seven-year history.
As in previous no-awards years, the decision has been met with curiosity and derision.
There’s no denying the prestige, if not the quantum, of the award for recipients. Comprising $5m over 10 years and $200 000 annually for life thereafter, as well as a possible $200 000 extra each year towards the winner’s philanthropic activities, it is a substantial award.
Mo Ibrahim, the Sudanese-British mobile communications entrepreneur and billionaire, set up the award to recognise and reward democratically elected leaders who have stepped down in the past three years after serving their constitutionally mandated term, and demonstrated “excellence in office”.
In its seven years, the committee has rewarded Joaquim Chissano, the former president of Mozambique; Festus Mogae of Botswana; and Pedro Pires of Cape Verde.
In the latest Ibrahim Index of African Governance, which measures safety, rule of law, human rights, sustainable economic opportunity and human development, Botswana ranks second, Cape Verde third and Mozambique 20th.
Leading the pack is the small island of Mauritius, with a population of 1.3 million and a GDP of $2.3 billion.
It has not gone unnoticed that the winners come from relatively small, insular nations. Sub-Saharan African giants such as South Africa ($385bn), Nigeria ($265bn) and Kenya ($41bn), who are often at the centre of key African economic and political resolutions, have failed to produce an outright laureate.
Curiously, Ibrahim did not rate Nelson Mandela an outright laureate, despite the fact that South Africa leads the continent in terms of GDP and ranks fifth in the Ibrahim Index.
Mandela is unquestionably “recognised throughout the world as one of the most exceptional leaders of our time”, according to the Ibrahim citation.
However, in the year that Chissano was awarded the inaugural prize, Mandela received an “honorary” award – certainly a questionable decision. Unless, of course, the committee recognised that Mandela was beyond the criteria – and no award other than the title to the prize is perhaps worthy.
There’s no doubt the Ibrahim Prize, established to strengthen governance in Africa, has noble intentions in a continent which, while stabilising, still experiences pockets of sporadic non-democratic behaviour. This was evidenced in the recent cases in Central African Republic, Mali and Ivory Coast.
The winner is selected by the prize committee of six eminent individuals, including two Nobel laureates, who assess every sub-Saharan African leader who has left office in the past three years on their exercising of leadership.
Is it possible that there is no worthy leader in a continent of 54 nations with as many as 38 former heads of state who, according to the Africa Forum, an informal network of former heads of state, “have left office with democratic credentials and wish to continue, in their own private capacities, to serve Africa”?
There’s a widely held view that Ghana’s two-term president John Kuffour and South Africa’s Thabo Mbeki, albeit flawed – as are all humans – could have been worthy laureates. Ghana is among the most stable nations and fastest-growing economies in the world.
Mbeki is arguably the finest pan-Africanist since the AU founding fathers. His African renaissance vision and Sudan peace efforts – since he was prematurely and ill-advisedly discharged from the presidency – are surely the mark of new African leadership.
That Africa has transformed from a continent with 16 raging wars in 2002 to relative peace and stability, with about two-thirds of governments in Africa democratically elected, compared with eight in 1991, is exemplary of post-colonial African leaders.
Though their leadership is not ideal and is often at the collective mercy of the indecisive AU, at least these leaders have now focused their attention on building a better Africa.
Indeed, many African leaders have not demonstrated exemplary leadership – with poverty growing, food insecurity, a wide divide between the haves and have nots, chronic public sector corruption and inept leadership – but there is now a vociferous civil society and global institutions to ensure that they do not lead with impunity.
The pockets of excellence of African leadership that exist deserve recognition – if not the massive pension that the Ibrahim Prize for Achievement in African Leadership represents – as an incentive to lead honourably.
Not that it bothers Ibrahim. At a recent Africa Media Leadership Forum in Tunisia, he made no apology for the discretion that he and his committee apply when making the award, laughing off remarks by Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni about how attractive it is.
Museveni recently told a meeting of Ugandans living in the US that he was neither too poor nor too needy to want the $5m prize for African leadership, in response to a question why he did not retire from power voluntarily to allow him to become a candidate for the lucrative Ibrahim Prize.
Of course there are more than enough despots to justify a non-award. But many, if not all, are sitting firmly on their “thrones”, on trial at The Hague or hiding in the bosom of their fellow despot friends’ nations.
None of them are in the running – or see a “mere” $5m as an incentive. For them, as Mike Jakeman of the Economist argues, the prize “is grotesquely large as a pension but far too small to counteract corruption” and would merely “make richer the continent’s richest men” – politicians.
Granted, it is Ibrahim’s initiative and money and he has the right to do what he wants with it. But surely a committee of mortals – albeit with impeccable credentials – including Machel’s widow and now Mandela’s wife, Graça, and laureate Mogae, are prone to errors in judgement. The criteria for the prize itself is rather subjective. Surely the decision must be contextual.
Africa is better than ever before. The prize could serve as an incentive for the new breed of presidents in democratic Africa who care about the continent and are ruling with more than their hand in the till.
Perhaps, as some facetious arguments making the rounds say, $5m is too much to give out every year. But as Jakeman suggests, evolving the prize along the lines of the Nobel Prize, particularly in subordinating the financial prize to the status of the award itself, could be a solution. I don’t agree though with him that the committee should also award the prize less frequently, raising the standard of its laureates and increasing its international prestige. As Aristotle observed, we are what we repeatedly do. And reward.
Africa is rising precisely because there are women like Joyce Banda who are willing to change the corruption narrative for African leadership. Africa is rising because there are men like Mbeki who understand that “without a vision the people shall perish”. Africa is rising because the moral authority of men like Mandela keeps nations in check regarding the decisions they make. Africa is rising because its 900 million citizens have found a voice and are beginning to hold their governments accountable.
Africa is rising because leadership is not merely by politicians, but there exist many everyday citizens and champions of what is right – such as Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu, last year’s honorary laureate – who are uncompromising, consistent and work for what is good for Africa and the world.
Africa is rising because Mandela’s resignation in 1999 showed the way for the wave of African leaders who now know leadership is not about the position, but what you do with it. They are creating an enabling environment for a better Africa.
The Mo Ibrahim Prize committee have erred once again in their decision, unless they were looking for a Higher Being among us. Many among us, as Augusten Burroughs observed, “are made entirely of flaws, stitched together with good intentions”.
Ibrahim should know. He is a privileged African with a British base, living in Monaco’s tax haven, not exactly a ringing endorsement of Africa.
* Thebe Ikalafeng is a global African adviser and author on branding and reputation leadership and founder of Brand Africa and Brand Leadership. @ThebeIkalafeng.
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Newspapers.