The Mo Ibrahim Prize for Achievement in African Leadership is awarded to a democratically-elected African chief of state who pursues good governance and then leaves office according to the constitution. The prize has been awarded only three times since it was established in 2006: to Mozambique’s Joaquim Chissano (2007), Botswana’s Festus Mogae (2008), and Cape Verde’s Pedro Verona Pires (2011). In 2009, 2010, and again this year, the selection committee found no candidate who met the eligibility criteria. The committee has made two exceptional awards, to Nelson Mandela (2007) and, this year, to Archbishop Desmond Tutu. But the lack of laureates is commonly taken to be an indictment of the quality of African leadership.
Mo Ibrahim, a Sudanese telecom billionaire and possibly the world’s richest African, currently resident in London, can be blunt and to the point. The BBC quotes Mo Ibrahim as saying, “you make your bed, you have to lie on it. If we said we’re going to have a prize for exceptional leadership, we have to stick to that. We are not going to compromise… We are not just in the business of positive messages–we would lose our credibility.”
The prize is extraordinarily rich: U.S. $5 million spread over ten years, followed by U.S. $200,000 a year for life. Among other things, the prize is intended to free African leaders from the financial concerns that have led some of them to cling to power.
Andrew Harding, BBC Africa correspondent, in a thoughtful comment raises the question of whether paradoxically, the prize actually re-enforces the link between money and power that it is supposed to discourage. He asks whether there might be a way to reward a country, rather than an individual, for advancing democracy and good governance. I think he has a point. However, if nothing else, the prize, and its dearth of qualified recipients, focuses popular attention on the importance of democratic leadership at the top.