Africa's new $5 million prize for top leaders

Proponents say the Ibrahim Prize will help improve the continent's crippling governance problem.

Imagine you're the leader of a small African country. You've led your country out of civil war, created a Constitution that enshrines the rule of law and human rights, and you've even managed to lift some of your citizens out of poverty. To top it all off, you know when it's time to retire. When your successor takes over, there's no bloodbath.

Behavior of this sort – called "good governance" by the academic set – is so unusual in Africa that an African entrepreneur created a $5 million annual prize to reward it. This week, the first so-called Mo Ibrahim Prize was awarded to Joachim Chissano, the former president of Mozambique.

The award, announced by former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan in London Monday, while applauded by many, has sparked a debate over how to improve the performance of African leaders, and even whether West's definitions of good governance can work in Africa.

"This is a positive trend," says Francis Kornegay, a senior analyst at the Center for Policy Studies in Johannesburg. "You're beginning to see [an end] to the presidents-for-life that you used to see. So you've got a leadership class that has emerged that is beginning to look very seriously at what can be done to strengthen African government. What you could end up with is a momentum developed for better governance in Africa."

Monetary prizes for simply doing one's job certainly seems counterintuitive. But a half century of African despots like Uganda's former leader Idi Amin and the late Mobutu Sese Seko of Congo, and kleptocrats like the late Nigerian President Sani Abacha have lowered the bar for the current generation of African leaders, and left many African citizens yearning for something better.

Corruption's cost in Africa

Anticorruption groups such as Transparency International generally rank African nations at the bottom in terms of governmental corruption. Theft from public coffers means less money available for clean water, medical care, roads, and schools. African Union experts estimate that corruption costs African economies more than $148 billion a year, or roughly 25 percent of the continent's gross domestic product.

The Mo Ibrahim Prize – named after the Sudanese multimillionaire founder of African mobile phone company Celtel – is at least one effort to reverse the downward spiral.

"I am absolutely delighted that Joaquim Chissano has been selected as the first laureate," said Mr. Ibrahim in a statement, on hearing the outcome of the Ibrahim Foundation's selection process. "As a man who has reconciled a divided nation and built the foundations for a stable, democratic, and prosperous future for the country, he is a role model not just for Africa, but for the rest of the world."

Using an index designed by Harvard University professor Robert Rotberg, the Ibrahim Foundation measures progress in key areas, such as security and safety, the rule of law, transparency and corruption, public participation and human rights, sustainable economic development, and human development such as poverty and education.

Mr. Chissano was chosen by a small committee who used research from the new Ibrahim Index to assess every African leader who has left office in the last three years on their exercise of leadership.

The new push for better governance

Ibrahim is not the only one linking Africa's recovery to good governance. The US Agency for International Development reduces aid to nations that don't meet governance standards.

The Ibrahim Prize, however, has its critics. Richard Cornwell, a senior analyst at the Institute for Security Studies in Tshwane (as the capital of South Africa is now called), says that the problem with the prize lies in the "Western standards of what is good governance."

"African states, by and large, don't function in the same way that Western states function," says Mr. Cornwell. "African heads of state are generally not concerned with the betterment of their people, but rather with their own enrichment. If good governance is not their intention, then $5 million is not going to encourage it."

Yet Ross Herbert, an expert on governance reform at the South African Institute for International Affairs, says that the Ibrahim Prize is a good first step.

"This is part of a broader fabric of incentives to create good governance, and any one thread in that fabric is not going to do the trick," says Mr. Herbert, head of the governance project at SAIIA in Johannesburg. "The fact that somebody defined what is good governance, what is the rule of law, what is transparency, is a good thing."

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Africa's Best-Governed Countries

The Ibrahim Index of African Governance ranks 48 sub-Saharan African countries by their governance quality.

1. Mauritius

2. Seychelles

3. Botswana

4. Cape Verde

5. South Africa


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