Mo Ibrahim prize: finally a winner

2015-03-06

Mo Ibrahim and his panel of judges must have realised that Africa would lose interest in his award if more time went by without a winner being announced.

After two barren years, the Mo Ibrahim Foundation finally announced on Monday that Namibia’s outgoing president, Hifikepunye Pohamba, won the US$5 million prize for leadership – the biggest award of its kind in the world. He will also receive a lifelong ‘allowance’ of US$200 000 per year. At the press conference in Nairobi, Kenya, where the winner was announced, the prize committee said Pohamba is rewarded for the important socio-economic gains made in his country; for assuring ‘national cohesion and reconciliation’; and for stepping down after two terms.

Salim Ahmed Salim, the former secretary general Organisation of African Unity and chairperson of the prize committee, described Pohamba’s leadership as ‘exemplary’. ‘He also respected the rule of law, especially when it came to term limits,’ Salim added.

Under Pohamba’s watch, Namibia has made huge progress in tackling poverty, promoting gender equality and improving health and education systems. ‘Namibia’s reputation has been cemented as a well-governed and stable democracy,’ Salim said. Still, ‘the prize committee is conscious that this young nation still faces many challenges, including widening social and economic inequality.’

Rewarding good leaders who respect democracy has never come at a better time

The 79-year-old Pohamba is certainly not one of Africa’s most recognisable leaders – perhaps to his credit. He has been a member of Namibia’s former liberation movement, the South West African People’s Organisation (SWAPO) since the 1960s and has won two elections, in 2004 and 2009. He is stepping down later this month after his successor, Prime Minister Hage Geingob, won the November 2014 elections.

The merits of Pohamba being awarded the prize are debatable: for example, Namibia is a small country, with only 2.3 million inhabitants. And since the Mo Ibrahim Foundation previously awarded the prize to the presidents of Cape Verde (Pedro Pires in 2011) and Botswana (Festus Mogae in 2008) – neither of which has a population of more than two million people – one should ask whether it is easier to govern a small country than those with huge, diverse and unequal societies. The only exception in the history of the Mo Ibrahim prize so far is Mozambique, which has 25.8 million inhabitants. Former Mozambican president Joaquim Chissano was the first laureate of the prize in 2005.

Those countries that make it to the top of the Mo Ibrahim index for good governance, released annually, are also mostly small countries like Mauritius, Botswana, Cape Verde and Seychelles. The only country in the top five with a sizeable population is South Africa, which is fourth on the list. Clearly, such measurements and frameworks do favour smaller countries. Namibia came sixth in the 2014 index.

Nevertheless, the Mo Ibrahim prize, and particularly the index, has become a valuable benchmark for excellence on the continent. And the picture is not all negative. Speaking at a conference in Johannesburg on Tuesday this week, Ibrahim Mayaki, Chief Executive Officer of The New Partnership for Africa's Development (NEPAD), said it is clear from the Mo Ibrahim index that Africa has ‘reached a level of democratic intensity.’

Whether it is helpful to give a cash prize is open to question

Mayaki said that by generalising somewhat, Africa could roughly be divided into four parts. Firstly, there is ‘the Africa that does not have mineral resources, but through structured transformational leadership has succeeded to develop their economies and are moving towards industrialisation.’ Secondly, there are the big mineral and oil producers that are trying to transform ‘but are still facing huge challenges in terms of inequalities’.

The third category is the least developed countries that are still largely dependent on aid, but ‘trying to get to the door of development’. Finally, conflict-ridden countries like Somalia and the Central African Republic ‘are not thinking about development but just peace and security,’ said Mayaki.

Shifting up or down the Mo Ibrahim index can give civil society and leaders a good idea of where they are, compared to their peers. This is something the African Peer Review Mechanism (APRM) is also supposed to be doing. Regrettably, the APRM is often mired in bureaucracy and stifled by the fact that it is essentially government driven.

Rewarding good leaders who respect democracy has never come at a better time. Across the continent, opposition is growing against the attempts by leaders to serve a third term. In Burundi and Togo, for example, elections are going ahead this year with the incumbent standing for a third mandate, albeit apparently sanctioned by their constitutions.

Whether it is helpful to give a cash prize, and such a big prize at that, is open to question, however. The Nobel peace prize, for example, is only worth around US$1.5 million. Does that mean African presidents do not earn enough, or that they need so much more encouragement to do the right thing? Surely most former presidents receive a sizeable pension? On the other hand, US$5 million may be too little to encourage long-time strongmen to step down.

Presidents who have served their countries well ‘deserve to retire with dignity'

One cannot imagine Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe or Equatorial Guinea’s Teodoro Obiang Nguema, both who’ve been in power for several decades, deciding to retire because Mo Ibrahim would reward them. Burkina Faso’s former president Blaise Compaoré was reportedly promised the job as head of the Francophonie Organisation if he accepted not to run for a third term, but he didn’t seem interested at all. Power is too attractive.

Graça Machel, widow of former South African president Nelson Mandela and a member of the prize committee, said that presidents who have served their countries well ‘deserve to retire with dignity’. Machel added: ‘All the laureates are humble people. They distinguished themselves in terms of service’. She said that besides a comfortable retirement, it also ‘allows the head of state to continue to do the work of his choice’. ‘It can be philanthropy; it can be initiatives for rural or urban development. It allows this head of state who has done well and has retired with dignity, to continue to play a role in the development of his country,’ she said.

Mo Ibrahim tried to support Machel’s point by citing a number of ‘wonderful leaders in Africa’ who apparently struggle to make ends meet. He made former laureate Pires stand up. ‘I’ve been to his house, I know how they live, he is a very modest man,’ Ibrahim said. Former Botswana president Quett Masire apparently flew economy class when he was president, said Ibrahim. Though not everyone would be convinced by this argument, the iconic Thomas Sankara would certainly have been happy to hear this. The former president of Burkina Faso, again in vogue following Compaoré’s ousting, made his ministers drive small cars while he sometimes rode a bicycle through the streets of Ouagadougou.

Mo Ibrahim took quite a big step when deciding on this prize for good governance in Africa, and it certainly isn’t above criticism. Yet it does make a point about role models and what kind of leadership is needed on the continent. One just hopes the Sudanese cellphone mogul has enough spare cash to also ‘retire with dignity’ and sustain his prize over time.

Liesl Louw-Vaudran, ISS Consultant

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