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The Mo Ibrahim Foundation and the African leadership deficit

By Dan Agbese
07 August 2016   |   3:42 am
In 2006, the Sudanese telecoms billionaire, Mohammed Ibrahim, instituted the Mo Ibrahim Foundation with the cardinal objective of, among others, focusing on “the critical importance of governance and leadership in Africa.”


In 2006, the Sudanese telecoms billionaire, Mohammed Ibrahim, instituted the Mo Ibrahim Foundation with the cardinal objective of, among others, focusing on “the critical importance of governance and leadership in Africa.”

It awards a mouth-watering prize for good leadership to a former African head of state or government, who has been out of office for some three years and who, in the informed opinion of the prize committee made of eminent Africans, meets the set criteria. Soiled men, keep off.

The winner takes home $5 million over ten years and $200,000 per year for life. It is worth working hard for. It should discourage African leaders from the unbridled and the criminal tendency to use their positions to empty the treasury when the bell tolls for their imminent departure.

This is the first and the most positive response to the continent’s biggest challenge: leadership deficit. It is a worthy initiative. And we should all welcome it.

It would be foolish to argue the point. Leadership deficit is the bane of African progress and development. The continent remains generally a pitiful victim of poor, venal and corrupt political leadership. Good political leadership matters because it drives everything else. Yet, some of these truly pathetic men on the African political stage, who insist on passing themselves off as authentic leaders, do not appreciate the difference between leaders and jolly good fellows.

Leadership deficit has robbed the continent of its right to make progress towards a sustainable developmental end. It leaves us with this huge irony of perhaps the richest-resource endowed continent being the poorest in the world. You would not expect Africa to be a basket case. It is. You would not expect Africa to be incapable of exploiting its own resources for the greater good of its own people. It is. You would not expect the continent to be a beggar and a dependent continent held hostage to human and natural disasters. It is. This continent is trying to walk only on its hind legs.

Africa believes that its right to depend on other countries is cast in granite. African leaders believe it is the business of other people to develop their countries. They surrender their countries to foreign investors and then sit back and are blinded to the crass neo-colonial exploitation of the resources of the continent. This is not to suggest that foreign investments are fundamentally exploitative, although denying it in its entirety would be naïve, but the point here is that because of poor leadership we miss the point: foreign investors are here to make more money from their investments. They go where the conditions for putting in money and getting out more money are right. I do not see them with charitable bags strapped to their shoulders.

The poorest continent also the continent gives the world its biggest headache outside the murderous Middle East. Wars and tribal skirmishes are daily facts of life, deepening the poverty and the deprivation in many an African country. Sit-tight African leaders, the likes of Zimbabwe’s Robert Gabriel Mugabe, feel they are indispensable to their countries. Poor African Big Men. The graves are full of the indispensables. They do not seem to know that – and won’t until they find themselves alone, all alone, six feet below in their gilded coffins.

I am intrigued by the fact that the Mo Ibrahim prize has unearthed, as it were, some seemingly unsung African leaders who proved themselves surprise models of good leadership and good governance.

They come from small nations and they were not stars on the African firmament until the prize committee told us their true success leadership stories.

Four such African leaders have so far won the prize since 2007. The legendary Nelson Mandela, the former and late South African president, was duly honoured with the prize in the honorary category in 2007. The real first winner was Joaquim Alberto Chissano, former president of Mozambique, for “his role in leading Mozambique from conflict to peace and democracy.”

Festus Mogae, the former president of Botswana, became the second winner in 2008, for “his role in maintaining and consolidating his country’s stability and prosperity. His time in office,” the committee said, “was characterized by careful stewardship of the economy and management of Botswana mineral resources, a tough stance on corruption and successful policies in combating HIV/AIDS.”

Pedro De Verona Rodrigues Pires, former president of Cabo Verde, was the 2011 Mo Ibrahim Foundation Laureate because he transformed his country “into an African success story, recognised for his good governance, human rights, prosperity and social development.” Under him, his country “became only the second African country to graduate from the United Nation’s Least Development category….”

Hifikepunye Pohamba, the former president of Namibia, was the fourth winner of the prize in 2014, “for forging national cohesion and reconciliation at a key stage in Namibia’s consolidation of democracy and social and economic development.”

I have quoted their citations to show that each of these former presidents did extra-ordinary things in his country, not by leveling the mountain with a shovel but by using ordinary tools of human management to make the sterling difference. We, Africans, have not taken sufficient interest in this important prize and its relevance in our quest for good leadership, good governance, the rule of law, the deepening and the sustenance of democracy and accountability. I was hoping that if anything would shake our continent out of its slumber, this was it.

Leadership deficit is a serious affliction in all human communities. When a nation suffers from it, it parades scoundrels posing as leaders; when a continent suffers from it, it wrecks its collective will to rise up to modern challenges. No leader, no vision – and the people head downhill.

The Mo Ibrahim prize may yet help to pull Africa back from the brink. Its celebration of unusual leadership and achievements should be a beacon to younger African leaders. It confronts them with challenges they can only ignore with dire consequences for the continent and its people.

I admit that this mouth-watering prize alone would not dramatically remedy the leadership deficit on the continent and make good governance the rule rather than the exception. At least, not in the time it takes to say Mo Ibrahim. But thanks to the work of the foundation, we have the basis for measuring the competence of and appreciating our leaders.

The Mo Ibrahim Prize is a big leap for Africa. I am willing to bet that if other rich Africans see it the same way and commit to it by helping the initiative along from different perspectives, the light would begin to shine on the Dark Continent. It would also enrich the narrative about leadership and perhaps help us separate the sheep as leaders from the goats as rulers. It would be no mean achievement, I tell you, brother.