Interview

No Ibrahim Prize for Achievement in African Leadership

One of Africa's top business leaders talks about the challenges of encouraging good governance.

FP/Getty Images
FP/Getty Images

Six years ago, Mo Ibrahim, a Sudan-born British philanthropist who made his billions selling cell phones, established an award to support good governance in Africa: a $5 million cash prize — which includes a $200,000 yearly stipend for life — to be awarded to any democratically elected leader who demonstrated exceptional leadership, served out their constitutionally mandated term, and, most importantly, retired when they were supposed to. The only problem is that barely anyone meets those criteria.

This week, for the third time in four years, the Mo Ibrahim Foundation announced that its prize for achievement in African leadership would not be awarded. "The challenge is really for people to meet that standard," Ibrahim told Foreign Policy in an exclusive interview. "We are not going to lower our standards just to be cheerleaders for Africa."

Ibrahim spoke with FP about the purpose of the award, the challenge of finding recipients, and the next generation of leadership in Africa. He also shared his thoughts on President Barack Obama’s policies in Africa (Spoiler: he thinks President George W. Bush did a better job) and on the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to the European Union. "I think it was a very good choice to support the European Union," he said, "because let’s not forget, those Europeans caused more wars than anybody in the world."

Excerpts:

Foreign Policy:  Can you tell us a little bit about the Mo Ibrahim Prize for Achievement in African Leadership, how it came about, and what you aimed to achieve with it?

Mo Ibrahim: Our solution is focused on the issues of governance and leadership in Africa. We believe that if Africa is to move forward, we need to look hard at the way we govern ourselves and also we need to look at the quality of our leadership. We will need both to move the continent forward. That’s crucial. There is no other way. Nobody can come and develop Africa on behalf of Africans. Foreign aid and advice from well-wishers or good people will not be sufficient. What is needed is for us to do the hard work.

We also need to look at our leadership. And the best way we thought to do that was to try to look for African heroes, people who came to power democratically, governed well, made hard decisions, moved people out of poverty, changed the course of their country, and then when the time came, ensured a peaceful transition of power. Those are the people we need to have in Africa if we are going to fulfill our potential. And that was the purpose of this prize: to identify those people and put them up as role models — and also to let the world know that in addition to the well known dictators, there are people doing good work in Africa, and in many cases they are not well known.

The money attached to the prize is to enable these leaders to have a life and mission after office. Our leaders in Africa have nowhere to go after they leave office. They don’t have mega-dollar deals on books and memoirs, which leaders in developed countries have. We want to enable those leaders to establish their own foundations and continue to pursue the public interest.

FP: This year — for the third time in four years — no prize was awarded. Why is that?

MI: Because the prize committee — I am not a member of the prize committee, of course — set high standards. The challenge is really for people to meet that standard. We are not going to lower our standards just to be cheerleaders for Africa. We are neither cheer leading nor denigrating Africa. We have to speak the truth. If there is no winner, there is no winner. In six years, there are three winners. I think that is not a bad record. And you know what, if you look around you, can Asia or Europe produce three winners in six years?

FP: That is a fair question. But was it a difficult decision not to make the award?

MI: It’s always a difficult decision to make. What’s important, is when a leader is elected, they live up to [the expectations of the award]. Because if skeletons come out of the closet, that would hurt the reputation of the prize. We have to be very careful and we have to stand with whatever decision we make. To be honest, I’m very pleased with the decisions the prize committee has made to date. They have selected three people and those three people have been continuously working. They have been doing marvelous work for civil society and for Africa in the last few years.

FP: The award stipulates that the recipient must have served their term and then left office peacefully within the last three years. The logic behind this certainly makes sense, given the importance of leadership and party alternation in democracy, but are you at all concerned that by declining to make the award on such a regular basis, you are painting an overly pessimistic picture of African leadership?

MI: To be honest, it is not us. If in a year or two, there are no leaders who are up to scratch — up to our standard — this is not the fault of the foundation. This is the fault of African leadership, and we should not shy away from saying this. We are supporters of Africa, but very critical of Africa at the same time. That is the way to support Africa.

FP: Are we facing a leadership crisis in Africa, then, or are the challenges just extraordinarily great?

MI: We really hope that things improve in Africa. There have been some bright spots, but Africa deserves better. We think the new generation seems to be coming through, which I think will be an improvement over the previous generation of leadership.

FP: Who are the leaders in that generation? Who’s the next great hope for leadership in Africa?

MI: I can’t really mention names, because it would be embarrassing for our prize committee if I start suggesting names. You need to look at our good governance indices to see how things are improving in Africa. This year, the indices describe 10 years of development in Africa. And in most areas, Africa has moved forward. We are doing much better now in economic stability, education, health, and gender [equality]. But we are not there yet because we came from a very low base. So we don’t need to be complacent. There are documented deficiencies and stagnations in the areas of participation and human rights and I’m not very pleased about this. So on the whole, I’m hopeful that Africa is moving forward. I hope it moves at a better and a more balanced pace.

FP: Let me shift gears for a bit and ask you about President Obama. He has only travelled to Africa once during his presidency — a trip to Ghana in 2009. And earlier this month he was criticized by rights groups for waiving penalties for arms sales to countries that use child soldiers. Waivers went to Libya, South Sudan, and, partially, to the Democratic Republic of the Congo. What are your thoughts on Obama’s Africa policies? Has he forgotten about Africa amid the "pivot" to Asia and the chaos in the Middle East?

MI: To be frank, I don’t think President Obama gives much thought to Africa — or gives much to Africa. Having said that, of course, I am aware of the problems Obama faced in the United States. The United States had a financial crisis in its hands, two big wars to sort out, and a logjam in Congress.  I think it has been a tough business for him — and globally — so that’s why he hasn’t had time for Africa. But I hope that if he wins, in his second term he will pay Africa the attention that it deserves.

FP: What would you want to see from Obama if he wins a second term?

MI: More engagement with Africa. More support for the Millennium Challenge Corporation, which is making strides in good governance. That was a good initiative by George W. Bush, who I think did a wonderful job in Africa, actually. I think Obama needs to build on that. Of course, he has done things in the areas of health and agriculture, but we are hoping for more support.

FP: You see President Bush’s policies as a model for American foreign policy toward Africa?

MI: George Bush is a hero in Africa. It is funny: In his last trip to Africa I think he was absolutely struck by the warmth of people and how he was treated as a hero when things were really going wrong in Iraq. And here was a place he did wonderful stuff and people were grateful. And I think it was probably the happiest of his trips abroad. So I hope Obama will come and have a happy trip in Africa, but we’ll see.

FP: The Ibrahim Prize for Achievement wasn’t the only prize to grab headlines in the last week. The Nobel Peace Prize, which went to the European Union, unleashed more than a few skeptics and critics. What are your thoughts on how that played out?

MI: I think it was a very good choice to support the European Union, because let’s not forget, those Europeans caused more wars than anybody in the world. Those guys have been fighting each other and killing each other — I mean how many people were killed in Europe in just the two world wars? Europe has been a killing machine. And for them to come together at last and have some kind of political cooperation — that is wonderful. Because when those guys have wars, they drag everybody into it. Everybody. Even the Americans are dragged into it. So at last to have peace is wonderful. I think they really, thoroughly, deserve this peace prize.

FP: What if you had to nominate a person?

MI: The person I’d like to see is President Mary Robinson of Ireland. I think she is a wonderful women, tirelessly campaigning for human rights, for women, for gays, for peace, for climate justice. She is tireless and totally dedicated.

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