One man and his money have set out to change how the world sees Africa. Mo Ibrahim’s Prize for Achievement in African Leadership is the world’s most valuable prize, offering a prize pot of a staggering $5 million, and an additional $200,000 per year for life. Eligible to a democratically elected African head of state who has left office in the past three years, the prize recognises and celebrates leaders who have dedicated themselves to lifting their country out of poverty, and on the path to development and prosperity. Mo Ibrahim – the self-made telecoms billionaire – seeks to show that Africa is not just a nation of corrupt kleptocrats, long past their sell-by dates, and still desperately clinging onto power. Instead, his prize gives due recognition to the exceptional role models of the African continent.
That is, it would do this if the prize were actually awarded. For the fourth time in the seven years since the Mo Ibrahim Foundation established the prize, the committee has yet again failed to find a suitable candidate to meet the prize’s criteria. It seems that even the most generous prize in the world is nothing compared to the immensity of what some African leaders are gaining by the drastic misuse of their power.
It is easy for our attention to be deflected towards those notorious names that have imbued Africa with an image of poor governance. After highly questionable elections in Zimbabwe, international attention has focused on Mugabe as he resumes his reign of terror after being sworn in for his thirty-third year in charge. Mr Afewerki continues his twenty-year rule in Eritrea – often dubbed the ‘North Korea’ of Africa – with his militarised ruling party being the only one allowed to operate. Perhaps one of the most corrupt is Africa’s longest serving leader Mr Obiang Nguema of Equitorial-Guinea, who has been accused of acquiring millions in French real estate and buying luxury cars with embezzled public money. His son, and the country’s president-in-waiting, has US civil forfeiture complaints filed against his $70.8 million assets, including a $30 million Californian beachfront mansion, a Ferrari, and a $38.5 million jet – all obtained using allegedly corrupt funds stolen from his impoverished country back home. The chance to pocket a few million dollars of prize money is a mere drop in the ocean for these kleptocratic rulers, and is very unlikely even to cross their minds.
However, denouncing the Mo Ibrahim prize as null because of its inability to act as an effective economic incentive is missing the point. Mo Ibrahim’s venture is not about hiding the bad to emphasize the good, or drawing attention to the democrats to make us forget about the kleptocrats. Mo Ibrahim is steadfast in how Africa is to change its future trajectory. Commenting on the Foundation’s related Ibrahim Index of African Governance (IIAG) – an annual assessment of governance in every African country – Ibrahim asserted that “Neither Afro-pessimism nor Afro-optimism do justice to modern Africa. This is now the age of Afro-realism – an honest outlook on our continent. It’s about a celebration of its achievements but also a pragmatic acknowledgement of the challenges that lie ahead”.
And there are certainly challenges. Paradoxically, despite the cash award, the Mo Ibrahim prize serves as a continual reminder that it is not all about the money. Released in October, the 2013 IIAG confirms that 94% of Africans have experienced an overall improvement in governance, especially in the categories of Human Development and Economic Opportunity.  However, it is easy for improvements in the economy to mask the corruption still endemic amongst top tier leaders. Although such areas are on the up, the categories of Safety and the Rule of Law have declined sharply across most of Africa. The choice of the prize committee not to award the Ibrahim Prize reinforces that excellence in leadership must not be narrowly identified with a leader’s ability to stimulate the economy, but depends on the accountability that a leader shows to their people. No matter how progressive a country’s economic development or how ubiquitous its trade flows, corruption will always remain an insurmountable obstacle to development. In the words of Karl Ziegler, the founder of the anti-corruption organisation Transparency International, “Corruption is problem number one, two and three on that continent.”
Despite the challenges, there is reason for celebration, too. The four silent years of the prize should not be taken as a sign that African leadership is doomed to failure, but instead that Mo Ibrahim’s prize has “set a very high standard […] And we are proud of our prize committee for being credible and tough”. Looking at the past winners of the Ibrahim Prize demonstrates that Africa must not be thought of as homogenous, and corruption and Africa do not go hand-in-hand. Three African leaders have been recognized for their remarkable achievement in leadership – President Chissano in 2007, whose strong leadership led Mozambique from conflict to peace and prosperity; in 2008, President Mogae of Botswana, who responded to the HIV/AIDS pandemic destroying his country with one of Africa’s most comprehensive prevention programmes; and finally President Pedro Vires’ in 2011, who transformed Cape Verde from the United Nation’s least developed category to a model for democracy and stability. Despite the corrupt African tyrants who steal the headlines and are plastered across Western media, there are success stories in Africa, too.
The Mo Ibrahim prize does not polarise pessimism against optimism. The prize has set a very high benchmark for what is expected from a new generation of African leaders. It overlooks economic achievement as the price of success, instead identifying corruption as the root of Africa’s problems, and the overcoming of it as the key to its flourishing. The standard has been set. The Ibrahim Prize is a continual reminder that, when it comes to leadership, Africa must not settle for anything less than excellence.