Africa’s Elusive Quest for Brilliant Political Minds

December 25, 2013 Updated: December 24, 2013

The Ibrahim Prize for Achievement in African Leadership awards $5 million to an exceptional African political leader. According to the Mo Ibrahim Foundation website, the requirements for the prize are that the leader is a “former African Executive Head of State or Government” who “left office in the last three years,” was “democratically elected,” “served his/her constitutionally mandated term,” and “demonstrated exceptional leadership.” In addition, the official had to be elected to public office through fair and free elections and must have stepped down at the end of his/her specified term.

The prize, officially launched in 2007 by billionaire Mohamed “Mo” Ibrahim, a mobile communications entrepreneur, has been awarded only three times. Past recipients include President Joaquim Alberto Chissano, Mozambique (2007), President Festus Gontebanye Mogae, Botswana (2008) and President Pedro de Verona Rodrigues Pires, Cape Verde (2011). Nelson Mandela received an honorary award in 2007.

I understand what Ibrahim is trying to accomplish. He’s made a name for himself and he wants to give back to Africa.

The foundation chose not to award the prize this year, prompting questions about the state of democracy, transparency, and the overall health of governance in Africa. However, what media outlets entirely failed to explain in their coverage of this event is the very legitimacy of this award. In other words, the Mo Ibrahim prize creates a discrepancy between its intent and its precedent.

Although Ibrahim’s intention is laudable, the criteria for success caricature the debate on governance. They obscure, rather than highlight, the purpose of the prize.

Looking at the continent’s history after independence, one can easily see how formerly promising leaders have brushed their original promises away and chosen to cling to power rather than provide a forum for collective growth and social cohesion. That is, “the liberator became an oppressor.”

Underwhelming Criteria

So, as the logic goes, the prize is an incentive for great leaders to step down at the proper time, thus letting their countries breathe, develop, and look toward a brighter future after these leaders have tilled and seeded a garden for growing ideas. Who knows? If the award had existed 20 years ago, Robert Mugabe might have been a revered international figure instead of the tyrant history clearly displays. 

The problem with the criteria for the prize is that four of the five requirements specify normal, expected behavior. We expect our elected officials to represent our interests in Congress or the Senate, to serve their constitutionally specified terms, and to step down when they lose elections. These criteria do not suggest anything worth celebrating; this is how things should be. To showcase the weakness of these rules, technically, Richard Nixon and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran fulfill these four criteria, but I doubt that either would be considered for an “excellence in government” award.

The Need for Leadership

This brings us to the last criterion: “demonstrated exceptional leadership.” This is the only criterion, which, if proved, may justify the award. Unfortunately, the problem is this: one of the other criteria—stepping down from office in the previous three years—precludes the possibility of objectively assessing whether a leader’s long-term impact on an emerging democracy is positive.

Governance is about the process of exercising public authority for the common good, amid adverse conditions and competing, multifaceted, developmental challenges. Yet the naiveté of the award-granting mechanism underlines the assumption that exceptional leadership can be gauged objectively soon after a president’s mandate is over.

This is not always the case. Mandela’s presidency, when closely analyzed from a policy and governance point of view, was not as impressive as his supporters might claim. However, the act of stepping down created a political environment—and a precedent—that will always represent a pivot in South Africa’s post-apartheid history. While Mandela was awarded an honorary Ibrahim Prize, his actual service does not fully exemplify the spirit of the award. 

The world is in dire need of great leadership, be that in Africa or elsewhere. However, if we are to celebrate the continent’s most prominent leaders, the tone of the discussion, and the criteria by which such leaders may be elected must change.

First, we need to stop crying wolf when the Mo Ibrahim award goes unclaimed, as if that’s a symptom of a void in African governance. This is truly unhealthy and unwarranted because expecting a Mandela to surface every year in Africa or elsewhere is nothing more than wishful thinking. At no point in world history did we encounter political leaders emerging as great leaders on an annual basis, like clockwork.

Second, one must award political minds who can create social cohesion and consensus among the masses, generate economic growth, foster political stability, and provide a political narrative in which we can believe. That is the true measure of award-worthy African—and, indeed, world—leadership.

Codrin Arsene writes about African political and cultural affairs. He is a Chicago-based anthropologist who lived and worked in Tanzania and Uganda.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.

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