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Is the Mo Ibrahim Prize Worth It?

For the third time in six years, the Mo Ibrahim leadership prize went to no-one. But the foundation is about much more than an annual award.
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Mo Ibrahim speaking at a foundation event. Photograph by Christopher Fleming.

London, UK:

Last week, the Mo Ibrahim Foundation announced that they would, once again, not be awarding their annual Prize for Achievement in African Leadership for 2012. The prize, awarded to African leaders who demonstrated “excellence in office” and have stepped down in the past three years, has so far only been awarded three times out of six since the inaugural award in 2007.

Many were disappointed at the news that no suitable candidate was found, but Mo Ibrahim insisted on seeing the glass as full. "In six years, we have found three exceptional leaders," Ibrahim said. "If you think about Asia or Europe, would they have found more than three leaders in six years? I doubt it.”

The prize is reserved for African heads of state who have, in the foundation’s eyes, developed their countries, reduced poverty, and paved the way for future prosperity and success. Winners are awarded $5 million, plus $200,000 per year for life thereafter.

In 2011, the Ibrahim Prize was awarded to President Pedro Pires of Cape Verde for his role in transforming the country into a model of relative democracy, stability and increased prosperity. In 2008, it was awarded to President Festus Mogae of Botswana for his role in maintaining and consolidating Botswana’a stability and prosperity in the face of an HIV/AIDS epidemic. And in 2007, President Joaquim Chissano of Mozambique received the prize for his achievements in bringing peace, reconciliation, democracy and economic progress to Mozambique following the civil war. In addition, former South African President Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu have been awarded honorary prizes for their part in the struggle against apartheid in South Africa.

Credit where credit’s due?

In light of the lack of award, many have questioned the narrow criteria by which the award is judged, and the non-eligibility of leaders who are not head of state but are nonetheless making important changes in civil society, ministries and opposition parties.

The foundation responds to such criticism by explaining: “We have not cornered the market for African prize giving. We welcome others to celebrate other positions, but when a country fails, who do you blame? You look at Mugabe, not his finance minister.”

Ibrahim himself claimed, “Our criteria only apply to democratically-elected heads of state who have left office in the past three years, served their term, and demonstrated exceptional leadership. Therefore we only look at three or four candidates each year. We are not saying we have not found good leadership across the whole continent.”

Although they did not name the individuals they considered, according to the criteria for the prize, the eligible candidates would have been Zambia’s Rupiah Banda, Senegal’s Abdoulaye Wade, and Lesotho’s Pakalitha Mosisili. Ibrahim added, “We are not in the business of pensions – this is a prize for exceptional leadership, and we will not award anything less.”

Indeed, rather than be discouraged, Ibrahim pointed to the 2012 Ibrahim Index of African Governance, which shows an overall positive trend in governance across the continent over the last ten years, with almost 70% of countries improving in overall quality of governance. This figure, however, masks large differences between countries and across categories. Whilst a majority of countries have improved in both Sustainable Economic Opportunity and Human Development, for example, this progress has not been matched in the areas of Safety & Rule of Law and Participation & Human rights, which show lower levels of improvements. Meanwhile, gender indicators show particular improvement, although from a low base.

Regionally, Africa’s traditional powerhouses of Egypt, Kenya, South Africa and Nigeria have all slipped down the index, especially in terms of human rights, safety and rule of law. For the first time, Nigeria has found itself in the bottom ten. On the other hand, Tanzania has done particularly well, making it into the top ten for the first time, while Mauritius is ranked first place and Somalia last. Testament to the challenges facing countries which experienced uprisings in 2011-2012, five of the six most imbalanced countries are North African: namely Algeria, Egypt, Libya, Morocco and Tunisia.

Power to the people

The Mo Ibrahim Prize, the most generous individual award in the world, has also been criticised for trying to effectively ‘bribe’ leaders into good behaviour, albeit with an incentive too small for those many leaders who could siphon off much larger amounts through corruption or force.

But Abdoulie Janneh, former executive secretary of the Economic Commission for Africa and new executive director of the Mo Ibrahim Foundation’s new base in Dakar, Senegal, disagrees with this analysis. He says that the value of both the prize and the index is “to give citizens the information to put pressure on their governments in the areas they want change. We want to debate with African heads of state and their ministries to show them that this is not a name and shame game. If used properly, [the foundation’s work] can help determine policy and allocate resources.”

Stephen Chan, professor at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, told Think Africa Press that the index is “certainly the most comprehensive and sophisticated index on Africa that we’ve got. It’s such a powerful instrument for people to debate politics. I see this as the key quantum leap to governance from below, although they should look at including digital or cell phone penetration in the future.”

While the award receives a large amount of media attention, the foundation seems aware that good governance comes from below as much as above. Director of Strategy and External Relations, Hadeel Ibrahim, emphasised their main priority is working with civil society in the continent, supporting the women’s movement, young people’s organisations and the African Capacity Building Foundation.

“The civil society space in Africa is growing. With all the communication we have now it won’t ever be put back in its box as people have in the past”, she says. This is why the index, the only measurement of African progress from Africa, and the award are both necessary. Information is an important empowering tool for citizens who can expect and demand more from their leaders, while those in power know that they are being closely watched.

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