No $5 million Mo Ibrahim prize: no honest African leaders?

This year, cellphone magnate Mo Ibrahim won't be giving a $5 million prize for good governance. Why not?

Kirsty Wigglesworth/AP
Mo Ibrahim speaks at a press conference in London, Monday. It was announced that there is no winner for the Ibrahim Prize for Achievement in African Leadership this year.

For the past two years, Sudanese-born cellphone magnate Mo Ibrahim has given out $5 million prizes to outstanding African presidents who had served their country with good sense, and then had the good sense to step aside when their terms were over.

Today, Mr. Ibrahim – the founder of the cellphone giant Celtel – announced that his team was unable to agree on a candidate for the $5 million prize this year, leaving many Africa watchers wondering if he had simply run out of good choices.

For the record, Ibrahim told reporters that "the prize committee could not select a winner," although there has been some speculation that Ibrahim simply lost too much money in the global meltdown last year to be handing out money now. Yet several observers note that the lack of a prize can be seen as a rebuke to African leaders at a time when African democracy seems to be sliding backward.

"Generally what we've observed in Africa, and this is worrying, is that leaders are massaging their constitutions and cooking elections in order to get elected," says Guillaume Lacaille, a Central Africa expert for the Nairobi office of the International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based think tank. "In general, a number of leaders have learned how to preserve the symbols of democracy without following the spirit of democracy, all in order to stay in power. So in a sense, for Mo Ibrahim not to give a prize this year might be a cry for change. We are seeing a trend that is very worrying."

Signs of progress, too

To be sure, Africa in 2009 is not the famine-ridden, dictator-ruled continent of yesteryear. Today there are far fewer conflicts in Africa than a decade ago, and far more Africans today have the chance to choose their leaders among a variety of credible parties. Even Ibrahim's own foundation has taken pains this year to point out the top countries in Africa that have shown the strongest signs of progress both in terms of democratic governance and the rule of law – with Southern Africa leading the way, with four of the top 10 performers.

"At a time when we are seeing overall progress in Africa, despite worrying setbacks in some countries, it is vital that African stakeholders and institutions come together to look for a way forward on the major challenges facing the African continent," Ibrahim said in a statement in Dar-es-Salaam, Tanzania.

In an earlier interview with, a news website focusing on African affairs, Ibrahim told editors that some 26 of Africa's 53 countries had made progress in governance in the past year. His index measures 84 factors, including rule of law, human rights, and economic opportunity.

"The index doesn't say Africa is bad," Ibrahim says, referring to a report by his foundation that rates African nations in terms of governance. "The index shows countries that are doing well; it shows countries which are doing badly... . It is a mirror. Some of us are good-looking; we look beautiful in the mirror. Some of us are ugly and are going to look ugly because the mirror will not lie. Don't blame the mirror!"

See the index here.

Leaders who won't let go

Yet the past year has seen a worrisome trend nonetheless, a move of African leaders to change constitutions to extend their time in power, or to hand power down dynastically to members of their own family. There have been military coups in Mauritius and Guinea, postelection violence and forced power-sharing governments in Kenya and Zimbabwe, and drastic constitutional changes in Uganda, Chad, and Cameroon to allow presidents to stay in power.

In short, there is still a long rocky road ahead for democratic reform in Africa.

"I commend Mo Ibrahim for acknowledging that in Africa, good governance is the exception," says Marian Tupy, an Africa watcher for the Cato Institute in Washington. "This notion of a 'new morning in Africa' was greatly exaggerated, and now Africa's lack of economic growth, and the lack of general security is catching up with African leaders. Over the past four or five years, the growing global economy gave an incorrect perception, it camouflaged the problems."

Investors often make a better judgment about how a country's reforms are going than do diplomats, Mr. Tupy adds, noting "Now that the global economy is going through a rough patch, money is looking for safe predictable places to go where the rule of law is obeyed, and we are seeing the problems of African governance in full view."

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