On talk show stations and Twitter across Africa there has been eager anticipation about which African head of state would win the biggest annually awarded prize in the world, the Ibrahim Prize for Achievement in African Leadership, which is worth more than $5 million.
But when the Chairman of the Prize Committee stood up to make the announcement this week, he concluded that this year there was no winner. None of those eligible had been found to meet the award’s exacting criteria.
Is this a sign that Africa is failing? That was a question that was often repeated when the Mo Ibrahim Foundation announced another fallow year. Yet I keep thinking that if such a prize were offered in Europe or the Americas or even Asia there would be no definitive winner either. Would the question that Europe, the US or Asia has failed arise then?
The fact that the prize has been awarded three times in the last six years is an achievement in a world facing a global deficit of leadership. The award is for extraordinary achievement in building social cohesion, delivery of basic rights and services to citizens, and integrity and transparency in office.
Performance of global leadership in resolving the major crises that humanity faces today is abysmal. The world blunders on from the financial crisis of 2008 to the precipice of an economic meltdown accompanied by food price spikes that have thrown tens of millions into hunger and poverty. The thread that weaves this tale of woe is one of human greed, the destruction of hope and the breakdown of trust in leadership and global and national institutions.
The Arab Spring was our awakening that the people have had enough of living with the burden and hardship of social and economic marginalisation. But in spite of that victory against tyranny, the lives of ordinary people has not changed. In fact, as Einstein said, "Insanity prevails. We are doing the same things over and over again and expecting different results." That is what our leaders do.
The root of our governance challenge is the absence of courage to carve a new political narrative and economic trajectory that is socially inclusive, understands the planetary and environmental limits of the current growth model and is people centred.
To achieve this, the Mo Ibrahim Foundation also produces every year the Ibrahim Index of African Governance. The Index identifies 88 indicators broadly broken into four major categories namely: Safety & Rule of Law; Participation & Human Rights; Sustainable Economic Opportunity and Human Development.
Overall, Africa demonstrates progress, albeit from a low base, in particular across the health, education, rural and gender indicators. That is the good news. Behind the overall positive trend, however, there are real causes for concern. Some of Africa’s regional powerhouses – Egypt, Kenya, Nigeria and South Africa – have shown unfavourable governance performance since 2006. Over the past six years, all four countries have declined in two of the four main index categories – Safety & Rule of Law and Participation & Human Rights.
What is the challenge of Africa? I do not believe that it is a binary choice between the West and China. Africa needs to exploit the competitive tension between global economic powers over our natural and mineral resources and market potential. We must stop undervaluing our assets – not least when, as the US and Russia suffer prolonged droughts, our continent has 60% of remaining arable land.
A critical shortcoming in our governance framework is that we continue to act as 54 countries, each striking separate deals in a way that weakens our bargaining power. If we had a coherent African leadership, and the right policy and incentives, we would see tens of millions of small-scale female farmers lifted out of poverty. We would see an increased drive to regional integration that fosters the free movement of goods and services within Africa. We would streamline customs and improve revenue collection. And we know from empirical research that improving incomes of women will lead to improved nutrition, health and education of their children.
But our greatest challenge or opportunity will come from the demographic profile of our population. Around half of Africa’s one billion population is under 20 years old, and that will increase to three quarters by 2050. What is the future we are nurturing for this critical part of our most precious resource? How can we promote an intergenerational dialogue of substance when the average age of our heads of state is over 62?
The difference in how we manage participation, human development and creating sustainable economic opportunities will decide whether we push our future generation into the hands of extremists, criminal syndicates or the predatory elites who benefit from the conflicts generated by our resource wars, or in making Africa the new global powerhouse of the world.
That is why the work of the Mo Ibrahim Foundation is so important. Through its index, prize and annual event – being held this year in Dakar, Senegal – it is investing in governance and leadership to catalyse Africa’s transformation. Last month, the foundation gave an extraordinary award for selfless service to Archbishop Desmond Tutu. He inspires us to be better human beings every day and to confront power with the truth.
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