Mandela Rhodes Scholars
Mandela Rhodes Scholars

The prize for achievement in African leadership: Juicy carrot or red herring?

Submitted by Olivier Jarda

Joaquim Chissano was in the bush, mediating between a rebel group and a government in northern Uganda, when Kofi Annan announced to the world that Chissano would be the first winner of the Mo Ibrahim Prize for Achievement in African Leadership.

On the day of the announcement of the inaugural prize in October 2007, which also happened to be Chissano’s birthday, the former president of Mozambique (1986-2005) had yet to be reached because he was busy working toward a final peace settlement in the region (Annan appointed him special envoy to the secretary general to northern Uganda and southern Sudan in 2006).

This is a story that Mo Ibrahim, founder of what is now the world’s biggest prize, recently recounted at the University of Oxford, United Kingdom, in an event organised by the Black Association of Rhodes Scholars (BAR).

Ibrahim, born in Sudan, made his fortune in telecommunications and is the founder of Celtel. He has set an example as an African business leader; he helped create sophisticated cellular networks in Africa, bringing jobs and spurring economic growth by facilitating communication and commerce. Ibrahim claims that Celtel, which he sold in 2005 for $3,4-billion, pays the highest amount of corporate taxes in eight African countries, more than all mining companies in the DRC put together.

Through his eponymous foundation, Ibrahim launched the prize in 2006, given yearly to an African head of state who delivers security, health, education and economic development to his or her people, and who transfers power democratically. The prize was established in an effort to reduce corruption and improve good governance, which is the focus of his foundation.

During the first 10 years, the winner is awarded $5-million, with an extra $200 000 a year earmarked for donations to good causes, and $200 000 per year for life, subsequently. The prize is the world’s largest, exceeding the $1,3-million Nobel Peace Prize.

Attending Ibrahim’s lecture in Oxford were many curious sceptics, some of whom questioned whether the resources needed for such an extraordinary prize could be used more efficiently elsewhere in Africa.

Ibrahim fired back with a few interesting points. He painted the scenario of an African president who does not steal from the purse, but who cannot afford a flat in the capital of the country once out of office. He then noted Western leaders who had made fortunes after office.

Ibrahim believes that the incentive for African politicians to steal and stay in power is high, and has tried to address this. Whereas leaders like Bill Clinton have been able to start their own foundations after their time in office, Ibrahim recognises that African leaders often lack the resources to continue life as an influential leader after office.

The foundation has also introduced good governance incentives in other ways. Going along with the prize is the Ibrahim index of African governance, whose scores are used as part of the selection criteria. The index was created under the direction of professors from the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard. It ranks the 48 countries in sub-Saharan Africa, assessing five key areas under the theme of good governance: safety and security; rule of law; transparency and corruption; participation and human rights; sustainable economic development; and human development. The foundation published last year’s results of the governance index in newspapers in all African countries.

Ibrahim told the BBC that “the prize will offer essentially good people, who may be wavering, the chance to opt for the good life after office”. That may be true for a very small percentage of leaders, but I don’t believe this prize will figure heavily in the rationale of most leaders who consider skimming from the top. It will serve more as a pat on the back to great leaders than as a corruption deterrent.

Although I am sceptical about the prize’s potential as an incentive to curb corrupt practices, the financial backing it gives to winners may help a pool of politicians with proven leadership capabilities to continue contributing to Africa, who otherwise may not have been able to do so. The prize also has the ability to promote an image of potential growth, stability and hope for Africa, which will hopefully attract more investment and encourage skilled workers to remain on the continent.

The prize does have potential to improve the notorious image of the African head of state. As Ibrahim mentioned, no one knew who Chissano was before he won this prize (myself included), but everyone knows who Idi Amin was. At the least, the prize is a public-relations jewel for African countries, which will hopefully highlight some of the continent’s great leaders, diverting attention from the usual media concentration on tyrants and showcasing Africa as a great place in which to invest and reside.

At the very end of the question period following Ibrahim’s lecture, one student stressed the importance of promoting and mentoring young African leaders interested in politics. Ibrahim mentioned a few initiatives that his foundation supports, including providing education for underprivileged girls, and emphasised the importance of women in moving Africa forward.

“We think African men have failed,” he said. But Ibrahim does not believe in charity. He sees it as a painkiller, not a cure. He chooses development initiatives as he would business investments, and hopes to see the day when Africa is no longer dependent on foreign aid. Although this prize may very well help in many ways to achieve this, I remain unconvinced that it will curb the corruption the foundation claims to want to quell.

Rewards for great achievement, such as the Nobel Peace Prize and the Mandela Rhodes Scholarship, rarely act as incentives for people to achieve great things. These prizes locate greatness spawned by other factors and attempt to propel it. It is evident that Ibrahim’s vision encompasses more than the giving-out of the yearly prize, and for this I commend him.

However, the good that can come from the prize in terms of improving governance in Africa is much more limited than the good that can be achieved through initiatives promoting leadership among young leaders. The foundation’s prize is nice, but I welcome coupling it with an increase in investment toward young leaders. Hopefully, these types of investments will improve the standards of African politics in the long run, making the task of the prize’s selection committee much more difficult in future.

Olivier Jarda is a Canadian (of Haitian decent) Rhodes scholar, currently reading for an MPhil in international relations at Linacre College, Oxford. He is the editor of Linacre Li(n)es, his college’s student publication. He is a singer-songwriter who has toured Canada extensively and is currently promoting a new solo album in the UK. His pen and his guitar often focus on social change and development, topics that will certainly continue guiding his winding career path. Earlier this year, he had the great pleasure of participating in the leadership/mentoring workshops of the Mandela Rhodes scholars in South Africa.

  • Khadija Sharife

    love your sound

  • Cynthia Ayeza

    Thanks for this piece Olivier.I am grateful for people that are willing to invest in African youth for the future of the continent… I also agree with the idea that it will take alittle more than afew scholarships and prizes here and there, acting as incentives inorder to make a significant difference in Africa…sometimes I am not sure that Africans would appreciate a Hoe as opposed to a donation… can we really break away from this cycle, when really we do not want to dig (even if every one of us may have it within us to want to learn how to use the Hoe)…A part of me is wary of African leaders that portray the idea that they do not want to depend on donations when they are the very people signing the documentation for more aid to Africa… I also wonder what role we, as Africans, play in depicting the tainted image that our continent has?! The world knows about Idi Amin courtesy of the media amongst other factors. In Uganda, the media is filled with Ugandands…yet none of them ever dared or dares to portray him as anything other than monstrous – I was almost convinced that Idi Amin was never humane – I guess he had no family and friends, right? We do have a long way to go I suppose. Donations, Aid, Scholarships, Nobel prizes… it has got to start with us – a change in mentality.