Is the Mo Ibrahim Prize fit for purpose?

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October 18, 2012 By Jimmy Kainja

The establishment of Mo Ibrahim Foundation some six years ago with a mandate to   support “good governance and great leadership in Africa” was received with a considerable amount of excitement and expectations across the continent as the Foundation appeared to have targeted an area that Africa lacked the most.

What was controversial from the onset however was the Foundation’s introduction of annual good governance award (Ibrahim Prize) of US$5 million over a period of 10 years then US$200,000 annually after for a former African “Executive Head of State or Government…” There is a prize committee that decides the winner. The seven-member committee is chaired by Salim Ahmad Salim and its members include Mohamed ElBaradei and Graça Machel.

Now in its sixth year, only three former African presidents have won the award: Mozambique’s Joaquim Chissano (2007), Festus Mogae of Botswana (2008) and Cape Verde’s Pedro de Verona (2011). The Foundation has also given ‘honorary laureate’ to Nelson Mandela (2007) and this year (2012) archbishop Desmond Tutu has been awarded ‘extraordinary prize’. There were no Ibrahim prize winners in 2009, 2010 and 2012 because no retired African head of state met the selection criteria.

English: Nelson Mandela in Johannesburg, Gauteng, on 13 May 1998 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The lack of winners in 2009, 2010 and 2012 when the prize committee had could choose from a few retired head of states point to two probabilities: either the state of African leadership is very poor or the Foundation has raised the standards unrealistically high for a continent whose majority of countries only did away with dictatorship in the last two decades or so.

It is time the Foundation reassessed the relevance of the award. Can you make bad a leader good by awarding good leadership? Does the Foundation really believe there is any African president out there on a ‘good governance’ mission in order to win the Mo Ibrahim prize when they retire? Were any of the past recipients incentivised by the prize or they were/are generally good leaders? Why is it that deserved winners have become scarce since the launch of the award? Are Nelson Mandela and archbishop Desmond Tutu not extraordinary leaders that can easily win any available award on any given day?

The foundation’s initiative to provide leadership training is commendable. This may, in the long term, yield some positive results for African nations and the continent as a whole. Yet financially rewarding a leader for being good at what their people elected them to do does not only defeat the whole notion of democracy, it also takes away power and responsibility from the electorate, who are meant to hold their leaders to account and demand service delivery.

The Foundation ought to realise that the award inadvertently promotes stereotype of African leadership as corruptible and greedy. Surely this is not the perception that the Foundation wants to promote? One would believe this defeats the Foundation’s own noble purpose of facilitating good governance and leadership on the continent.

On its website, the Foundation quotes the current European Union head, Jośe Emmanuel Baroso: “Sustainable development requires states to be legitimate in the eyes of their citizens and to deliver the core functions of the state.”

Similarly, the Foundation ought to realise that supporting civic education efforts for the masses, civil society organisations and other non-governmental groupings on issues of governance, good leadership and democratic principles is crucial. The continent need more than well-trained leaders and good leadership awards to achieve good governance, it also requires engaged, capable and active citizens to hold their leaders into account and refuse mediocrity. Active citizens are the best moderators of good leadership and governance. This cannot be determined by a medal or cash prize.

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