For the second year in a row, The Mo Ibrahim Foundation has decided not to award its signature prize to an African ruler who was democratically elected and then agreed to – and actually did – leave office without being nudged by bayonets.
The prize was created by Sudanese businessman Mo Ibrahim for African ex-leaders to encourage good governance on the continent. Before funding this prize and his eponymous foundation, Ibrahim made his pile in the mobile communications industry. Winners receive $5 million over 10 years, and then $200,000 a year for life.
The Ibrahim Prize is awarded to a democratically elected former African executive head of state who has served his or her term in office within the limits set by the country’s constitution and has then stepped aside in the past three years. In explaining the current dearth of winners, Ibrahim said “the standards set for the prize-winner are high”, and added that since last year no new candidates had emerged who met the core criteria.
Last year, South Africa’s Thabo Mbeki, Nigeria’s Olusegun Obasanjo and Ghana’s John Kufuor were contenders, but none was ultimately awarded the prize.
In its official statement, The Mo Ibrahim Foundation explained why 2010 is a repeat of 2009. “It is likely that there will be years when no prize is awarded. In the current year, no new candidates emerged.” This year’s winner was supposed to be announced on Monday, but then, on Sunday, the seven-member prize committee, led by former UN secretary general Kofi Annan, didn’t name anyone.
Last year, Ibrahim had said people could draw their own conclusions about why there was no prize. He insisted it was not a sign of disrespect towards eligible candidates and the prize committee said that while they “welcomed the progress made on governance in some African countries”, it was “noting with concern recent setbacks in other countries. This year the prize committee has considered some credible candidates. However, after in-depth review, the prize committee could not select a winner.”
And so, trying again to make lemonade out of its lemons, the foundation added: “Many African countries are making great strides not just economically, but also in terms of their governance. The Ibrahim Index, which measures the performance of African countries across 80 criteria, indicates that the overall standard of governance is improving. Nevertheless, the Foundation is anything, but complacent about the standards of governance in Africa…[and] it is clear much more needs to be done. [Therefore] the Foundation has decided to promote complementary initiatives. The Foundation will shortly be launching the Ibrahim Leadership Fellowships to identify and prepare the next generation of outstanding African leaders by providing them with mentoring opportunities in key multilateral institutions.”
This year’s decision, can easily be interpreted as another black-eye for the strength of democratic traditions in Africa. While a growing number of African states now have nominally democratically elected governments, the democratic tradition – except for Botswana, Ghana, Mali and South Africa – remains tenuous at best.
Despite not awarding a prize for two years, Ibrahim insists it remains relevant because so many leaders of sub-Saharan African countries come from poor backgrounds and are tempted to hang on to power for fear poverty awaits them if they step aside. Unstated, but implicit, is the hope the prize can dampen enthusiasm for kleptocratic tendencies by leaders.
Botswana’s former president, Festus Mogae, won the prize in 2008 after two terms in office and the 2007 prize went to Joaquim Chissano, Mozambique’s former president. Former South African president Nelson Mandela was made an honorary winner as well.
By J Brooks Spector
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