Why the African Leadership Prize matters

CARL DE SOUZA/AFP/Getty Images Mo Ibrahim is a rare breed of African billionaire. On a continent far too often associated with the Mobutu Sese-Sekos and Charles Taylors of the world (whose fortunes came from commodity wealth, skimmed gracefully off the state budget), Ibrahim did it differently. A Sudanese telecoms entrepreneur, he earned his respect and ...

By , International Crisis Group’s senior analyst for Colombia.
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591943_081021_mo5.jpg

CARL DE SOUZA/AFP/Getty Images

Mo Ibrahim is a rare breed of African billionaire. On a continent far too often associated with the Mobutu Sese-Sekos and Charles Taylors of the world (whose fortunes came from commodity wealth, skimmed gracefully off the state budget), Ibrahim did it differently. A Sudanese telecoms entrepreneur, he earned his respect and big bucks as a businessman.

Now Ibrahim has set himself on a far more difficult task: fixing African governance and changing the continent's culture of corruption. A politician in Nigeria once described it to me like this: In a continent where so many are poor, when you see the chance to secure a financial future, you take it. Unabashedly, many politicians have done so. In 2006, Transparency International estimated that $140 billion of misappropriated African money was invested abroad.

CARL DE SOUZA/AFP/Getty Images

Mo Ibrahim is a rare breed of African billionaire. On a continent far too often associated with the Mobutu Sese-Sekos and Charles Taylors of the world (whose fortunes came from commodity wealth, skimmed gracefully off the state budget), Ibrahim did it differently. A Sudanese telecoms entrepreneur, he earned his respect and big bucks as a businessman.

Now Ibrahim has set himself on a far more difficult task: fixing African governance and changing the continent’s culture of corruption. A politician in Nigeria once described it to me like this: In a continent where so many are poor, when you see the chance to secure a financial future, you take it. Unabashedly, many politicians have done so. In 2006, Transparency International estimated that $140 billion of misappropriated African money was invested abroad.

Ibrahim just may have found one of those rare strategies that is perfectly suited to the problem. Need an incentive for good governance? How about the more than $5 million that the Mo Ibrahim Foundation now offers to its yearly prize winner, a head of state who has recently left office. The qualifications are simply good behavior: attention to economic development, human rights, public health, transparency, rule of law, and security.

It’s still nothing compared to the potential payoffs for corrupt leaders, (during my time in Nigeria, a former governor was arrested for having amassed $35 million in foreign accounts, though his official salary was just $25,000 a year) but it is a well-earned reward for those who resist this path. This year’s winner, former Botswanan president Festus Mogae, oversaw economic growth and enormous progress in battling the stigma attached to HIV/AIDS patients.

The prize has been criticized by some for rewarding behavior that should just be expected as something extraordinary. But the most important aspect the prize has is not the reward itself, but the chance to tell the other story about African leadership — to the continent itself and to the world. As Ibrahim explained to the New York Times, we all know about the Mugabes of Africa, but they’re only part of the story.

Elizabeth Dickinson is International Crisis Group’s senior analyst for Colombia.

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