Is Africa advancing? This was the crisp question we asked ourselves at the Mo Ibrahim shindig in Dar es Salaam two weeks ago. The Prize Committee had been unable to select a winner this year. Time magazine put it succinctly last month: 2009 has been a bad year for governance in Africa.
The prize is awarded by the Mo Ibrahim Foundation to (former) African heads of state who deliver security, health, education and economic development to their people, and who democratically transfer power to their successor. The prize is sponsored by Mo Ibrahim, a Sudanese telecoms billionaire and, apparently,
Great Britain’s most influential black person (I read it in the Guardian). With a $5 million initial payment, plus $200 000 a year for life, the prize is the world’s largest, exceeding the $1.3 million Nobel Peace Prize — which was awarded this year. The foundation’s index methodology and research, until this year, conducted by the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, is meticulous. It rightly holds Africa to the same bar as everyone else: the misguided — and patronising — rule of exception is not applied.
Having attended the ceremony last year in Alexandria where the former president of Botswana, Festus Mogae, was awarded the world’s biggest prize — I immediately drew comparisons to this year’s soirée. Last year’s event was very glamorous in a Euro late-1990s way: espressos at the Four Seasons San Stefano, much air kissing and greetings punctuated by “hello darling”. There was champagne, sushi and everyone gathering around Kofi Annan and his elegant Swedish wife in the swish foyer of the Biblioteque.
Annan was not there this year. But the lovely former president of Ireland and UN Human Rights Commissioner Mary Robinson was. The beaming President of Tanzania Jakaya Kikwete was a jovial host shaking hands and making everyone feel welcome. When we arrived our driver solemnly informed us that we could not get any closer because a “big man” was just about to arrive. “He has a tummy bigger than me?” Mangosuthu Buthelezi quipped. A gamely witticism considering the sweltering heat.
There were no espressos or sushi this year. Perhaps a reminder that this had been a bad year for governance in Africa? In terms of value though, this meeting had far more substance. Ibrahim unconvincingly put forward that there were a number of suitable candidates for the prize, but in Delphic terms, the committee — which he has no part of — decided in its wisdom not to award the prize this year.
How did South Africa fare? Well, President Jacob Zuma will appear in a laudatory cover-page profile on next week’s Time magazine, but using the index as a guide, I would suggest that this is, to put it mildly — premature. This year, South Africa ranked fifth behind Mauritius, Cape Verde, Seychelles and Botswana. We ranked third (out of 53 nations) for participation and human rights, seventh in rule of law, transparency and corruption, ninth in human development, and, disconcertingly, we came eighth in sustainable economic opportunity and seventh in safety and security. All in all, the index for South Africa offers a mixed result with lots of scope for improvement.
Back to the ceremony. Festus Mogae gave a cracking speech about what he has been up to since he won the prize. He was funny, sharp and moving in turn. I loved his speech. A continent of 900 million people, Mogae pointed out, and the world’s wealthiest in terms of natural resources, produces only two thirds of India’s output. We are not governed well Mogae lamented, sparing no blushes for Zimbabwe’s tyrant.
The previous weekend I had been in Maputo and I was most amused to learn that, apparently, President Robert Mugabe had been holed up in his suite the previous week with gun-toting security at the Southern Sun Hotel when the pariah was attending the SADC summit. I am glad that it has dawned on the dude that he is not welcome anywhere. It took long enough.
Mogae is also one of the first African leaders who I have heard speak credibly on climate change. He made the excellent point that the continent which pollutes the least, Africa, will suffer — as always — the most. (En passant, we have to stand up as a continent to China: they need our resources more than we need their capital). He joked that Kilimanjaro looked like a cardinal’s zucchetto and we all laughed, heartily safe in the knowledge that one, there were no Catholic leaders present and two, they deserve a little fun poked at them — like we all do. And he was spot on about the receding snowy slopes. That very same morning we had flown over Kilimanjaro from Nairobi to Dar es Salaam on Kenya Airways. Sure enough, as the American pilot kindly dipped the plane’s wing so we could snap away at the iconic mountain, the west flank of “White Mountain” was almost devoid of snow, forming an almost perfect zucchetto over the Serengeti. A magical place where far below the denuded heights lion cubs suckle, elephants trumpet and the Mara people try to eke out a living.
Understandably, but fatally for our children and grandchildren’s future, in general, African policymakers struggle to grapple with climate change when faced with the bread-and-butter issues of hunger, homelessness and job creation.
This year’s ceremony also bore testimony to the fact that Africa’s dizzyingly diverse culture matches the best of the best anywhere. The evening’s compère, the gorgeous Angelique Kidjo from Benin, reminded us of the power of African girl power, as she nostalgically sang some of the late Mama Miriam Makeba’s songs, including the international hit Qongqothwane — The Click Song. As Angelique spoke eloquently about empowering African women one could not help but recall the proverb that when you strike a woman, you strike a rock. Authentic women’s rights remain, I believe, a stubborn challenge. The music of Senegalese artist Youssou N’Dour — named as one of Time magazine’s most influential people in 2007 — reminded us that some of us are not just Eurocentric, but sometimes South African-centric in our worldview, too. The hip-hop artist Emmanuel Jal, born in war-torn Sudan, and taken to fight with the rebel army at the age of six, sang a song of tribute to the female British aid worker who rescued him. Only a heart of flint could not be moved. Afrique brims with talent.
On a lighter note, it was funny when Ibrahim got everyone to dance at the end — it is now de rigeur that one makes a prat of oneself at these international events by prancing around like a Charismatic Christian high on ecstasy — and the president’s decorated military chief of staff kept trying to stand rigidly behind the dancing president. George Soros was also present with an attractive and skimpily dressed young lady in tow. The ever gallant Prince Buthelezi ventured that she could have been his public-relations person. Anyway, one should not gossip.
My brief visits to Maputo and Dar es Salaam once again made me cognisant of the fact that despite the huge challenges we face, what a fabulous continent we inhabit! I found Maputo far more racially integrated than our South African cities. Somehow people seemed more at ease with one another — or was it just the restaurants and coffee shops I hung out at? I don’t think so. Or is it because, paradoxically, the peoples of Mozambique are more united by Portuguese as their common lingua franca after decades of internecine strife? The Thatcherite in me observed that the two East African economies seemed to be thriving. Cellphone stores and small impromptu hi-tech businesses are sprouting everywhere. There are new FNB ATMs on every corner, and all of South Africa’s retail brands like Mr Price are doing a roaring trade in Dar es Salaam. The unsophisticated point I am trying to make is that
Africa is forging ahead in spite of, not because of, her leaders.
On this note, I make a petit plea to Thought Leader readers who are lucky enough to travel from time to time. Let’s skip Perth (because it is full of ex-patriots trying to recreate Sandton City) and Buenos Aries (admittedly deliciously decadent) in 2010 and holiday in beautiful Africa. A weekend in Maputo, closer to Johannesburg than Durban, offers the bold visitor dhows glinting in the setting sun, Caminhos de Ferro de Mocambique — the railway station designed by Gustav Eiffel (who also designed a tower in Paris which bears his name) — tiger prawns and delicious Portuguese pastries. This and more exists in one tiny portion of our great continent. What else organic and magical do we overlook when staring across at the gaudy offerings of, say, an Australian holiday?
As our plane glided into Oliver Tambo on the return from Dar es Salaam, a Japanese businessman next to me, visiting South Africa for the first time, turned to me and said “it looks like Europe”. Little did he know… I felt a twinge of envy that he was about to experience our “Beloved Country” for the first time. We cannot leave it up to our leaders to stand up for Africa. We share a responsibility in shifting perceptions of Africa in the next decade.