For the second consecutive year, billionaire Mo Ibrahim’s foundation has declined to award its Mo Ibrahim Prize to an African leader. Last year, the foundation’s prize committee said it had considered credible candidates, but couldn’t select a winner. This year, the committee said there were no new candidates or developments that would break last year’s deadlock. Does this mean African government leadership is declining? Not necessarily.
The Ibrahim Prize is awarded to a democratically elected former African Head of State or Government who served in office within the limits of his or her country’s constitution and has left office within three years of the awarding of the prize. Past winners were former Mozambique President Joaquim Chissano (2007) and former Botswana President Festus Mogae (2008). Former South African President Nelson Mandela was made Honorary Laureate in 2007.
“The standards set for the Prize winner are high, and the number of potential candidates each year is small. So it is likely there will be years when no Prize is awarded,” said a committee statement.
The committee does not say they feel that African governance is lagging. “Many African countries are making great strides not just economically, but also in terms of their governance,” the committee stated.
So why has there been no winner since 2008? The answer lies in their statement about the number of eligible candidates.
Of the African Heads of State who have left office since 2007, five died in office: Omar Bongo (Gabon), Lansana Conté (Guinea), João Bernardo Viera (Guinea Bissau), Umaru Musa Yar’Adua (Nigeria) and Levy Mwanawasa (Zambia). Of the others, Marc Ravalomanana (Madagascar) was forced from office after he had forced his predecessor out. General Mohammed Ould Abdel Aziz (Mauritania) had seized power before seeking election in tainted balloting. Mamadou Tandja (Niger) tried to illegally extend his term. Ahmed Tejan Kabbah was long suspected of involvement in corruption during his rule. That leaves former Ghanaian President John Kufuor, former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo and former South African President Thabo Mbeki.
The executive face of South Africa’s government from the time of majority rule in 1994, Mbeki caused serious concerns internationally due to his unorthodox views on how HIV-AIDS is transmitted and refused to accept the standard view on this. He was forced from office by his political party, largely due to clashes with his successor Jacob Zuma, even though the economy grew at 4.5% during his term in office.
Despite his role in bringing into government successful reformers, Obasanjo unsuccessfully tried to push a constitutional change to vie for a third term, and the Nigerian parliament indicted him in 2008 for questionable energy deals. Nevertheless, he has had a stellar post-presidency period.
That leaves Kufuor, and what has many puzzled (especially in Ghana) is why he hasn’t made it over the top either last year or this year. When he won election in 2001, it marked the first peaceful, democratic transition in Ghana since its 1957. He was a moving force behind the creation of the New Partnership for African Dev elopement (NEPAD), and Ghana became the first country to undergo assessment by its Peer Review Mechanism. His country’s governance convinced the United States to award Ghana a US$500 Millennium Challenge Account grant.
So why didn’t Kufuor get the Ibrahim Prize? Good question, and one the Ibrahim Foundation has not revealed. There are rumors that his son’s business dealings may have been a problem or that successor John Atta Mills, a political rival, may have influenced the decision to withhold the award. Neither reason should have denied Kufuor this award.
The Ibrahim Prize consists of an award of US$5 million over 10 years and US$200,000 annually for life. With such a significant financial investment in the winner, it is appropriate to be careful and not make an award when there is question about some development unfolding after the award is made. Still, to deny leaders on the basis of rumors can only serve to frustrate those who have assembled an admirable record in office. Not being selected says the rumors must be true and taints an otherwise commendable record.
Losing to another candidate is the cost of competition, but the collateral damage from not winning when you appear to be the logical choice is an unnecessary slap in the face to someone who has followed the rules.