$5 million prize for former African leader goes to ... no one


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Millions of dollars hung in the balance as a committee huddled in London, trying to decide which former African leader was worthy of their hefty cash prize. Monday, they announced which government head won.


For the third time in its six years of existence, the Mo Ibrahim Foundation prize committee scanned Africa and decided nobody met the bar for its coveted award, which includes $5 million paid out over a decade and an additional $200,000 annually for life.


The plush prize is supposed to nudge African leaders to serve well -– and serve only so long. It cannot be granted to leaders who illegally cling to power. Only leaders who have left office in the last three years, serving no longer than their constitutionally mandated terms, can get the cash award.

The Mo Ibrahim Foundation eyed “a number of eligible candidates,” it said Monday, “but none met the criteria needed to win this award.” Its chairman and namesake, a British billionaire born in Sudan, told the Associated Press the committee wouldn’t “go through the motions to just find anybody.”

The foundation, launched six years ago, aims to promote good governance in Africa, which has made strides toward stronger democracy but is still speckled with countries where power stems from military coups, corruption or brutality. Last year it honored former Cape Verde President Pedro Verona Pires for bolstering democracy; before that, it didn’t honor anyone for two years in a row.

Ibrahim argued the decision was not a disappointment, but a sign of exceedingly high standards. The foundation gave no details about why nobody was chosen. Despite what Ibrahim said, not handing the prize to anyone was widely seen as a dismal mark for the latest round of African leaders to leave power.

“Good governance is a rather hard sell in Africa,” the Daily Nation in Kenya editorialized ruefully, “because some leaders believe their survival is synonymous with that of their countries.”

The same day the foundation announced no one would snag its prize, it heralded that countries across the African continent were making strides toward better government. Its annual ratings for good governance showed particular progress in economic opportunity and gender equality, it said. Liberia, Angola, Sierra Leone and Rwanda were among several nations credited for improvement with time. The vast and diverse continent defies simple generalizations, however. The tiny island nation of Mauritius snagged the highest rating of 82.8 out of 100; turbulent Somalia ranked last at 7.2.


Even as the foundation celebrated overall progress, it lamented that some of the most powerful African countries were slipping. South Africa, recognized in recent years as one of the most effectively governed countries on the African continent, fell in its rankings for safety and human rights. So did Egypt, Kenya and Nigeria. Economic progress in many countries wasn’t matched with advances in human rights, the foundation warned.

The rankings left some experts scratching their heads. Ebrahim Fakir, who manages the political parties and parliamentary program for the Electoral Institute for the Sustainability of Democracy in Africa, thought Egypt had been overlooked as a success story, boasting “credible” elections that ran according to schedule and a robust movement of protesters and civil society activists to keep it accountable.

“I’m not saying it’s an unmitigated success,” Fakir said. “Of course they had problems, like the military deciding to suspend parliament. But society came out to defend their democratic space.”

The foundation also credited Zambia, which ranked slightly higher than Egypt, for notable improvement over time. “What’s the big progress in Zambia? That when someone loses an election, they’re out of power?” Fakir asked. “It’s celebrating something that ought to be normal and routine.”

The system also appears to downgrade countries for a ‘snapshot’ of turmoil, even if it could be an opportunity for improved governance, said Emira Woods, co-director of Foreign Policy in Focus at the Institute for Policy Studies. South Africa, for instance, is in ‘an incredible moment of transition,’ she said.

Recent strikes and labor unrest could be a chance for ‘the needs of the 99% to be heard in ways that they haven’t before,’ Woods argued. ‘That could ultimately be good news for South Africa. But in this snapshot, it’s judged as a negative thing.’

The ratings are rooted in data from nearly two dozen different institutions, including the World Health Organization, the African Development Bank and Freedom House, which are crunched into countrywide scores for human development, economic opportunity and other indicators.

The result, the foundation says on its website, is ‘a framework for citizens, public authorities and partners to assess the effective delivery of public goods and services.’


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-- Emily Alpert in Los Angeles

Photo: Sudan-born telecom tycoon Mo Ibrahim, founder of the Mo Ibrahim Foundation, speaks at the launch of the 2012 Ibrahim Index of African Governance on Monday in London. Credit: Justin Tallis / Agence France-Presse / Getty Images