With No Winners of Ibrahim Prize, More Africans Stand to Lose

It should not be that hard to give $5 million to someone for the simple act of stepping down when one’s term in office ends and allowing democracy to function. And yet the Mo Ibrahim Foundation decided no African head of state earned its prestigious Ibrahim Prize for Achievement in African Leadership this year. This is the second year in a row with no winner. (In 2015, the Foundation said that lack of winners was more because of daunting conditions than poor leadership.)

Since the prize was established in 2006 by Sudanese-British businessman Mo Ibrahim, there have been no shortage of elections prescribed by Constitutions in Africa’s 53 countries but the prize has been awarded only four times: Hifikepunye Pohamba of Namibia (2014), Pedro Pires of Cabo Verde (2011), Festus Mogae of Botswana (2008) and Joaquim Chissano of Mozambique (2007). Nelson Mandela was the inaugural honoree in 2007. Ibrahim has endowed a host of endeavors to assess and advance democracy in Africa. Arguably, the prize can be seen as both reward and incentive for other leaders to join the ranks of statesmen. More broadly than accepting election results, the prize criteria include having been democratically elected in the first place, served only the constitutionally allowed tenure and demonstrated exceptional leadership.

To be sure, there have been leaders in the last few years who have abided by election results and spared their countries of potential instability and violence. Tanzania’s Jakaya Kikwete, Ghana’s John Mahama, Mozambique’s Armando Guebuza and Nigeria’s Goodluck Jonathan were potential contenders. But, all have their detractors for reasons ranging from allegations of corruption to questions of how free and fair elections were.

Unfortunately, the more common theme on the continent in recent years has been a resurgent strongman. In Burkina Faso, Blaise Compaore tried to cling to power but was rebuffed by his people and the international community. Gambia’s Yahya Jammeh first conceded defeat, then retracted it and put the country through a tense standoff before he realized he had run out of options and internal support. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, President Joseph Kabila maneuvered a postponement of elections that were to have taken place in November 2016 and is dragging his feet in honoring an agreement brokered by the country’s Roman Catholic bishops to have elections by the end of this year. In the DRC, there has been a troubling rise in violence.

The Chairman of the Independent Prize Committee, Dr. Salim Ahmed, was quoted in media reports saying, “A very high bar was deliberately set when the prize was launched in 2006. We recognize and applaud the important contributions that a few African leaders have made to change their countries for the better.”

It is fitting to set a high bar. At the very minimum, honoring the rule of law and advancing the security and freedom of one’s people are the substance of the job description for a president. But in countries long beset by economic and political instability, it takes uncommon leadership and vision. Winners of the $5 million prize receive the proceeds over ten years. On top of that, they are provided $200,000 annually for the rest of their lives. Along with the gratitude of their countrymen, being award the prize means prestige, attending conferences around the continent, and establishing a legacy for their descendants to embrace with pride.

Alas the lure of perpetual power, the arrogance of seeing oneself as indispensable and the opportunity to acquire a lot more than a mere $5 million proved to be too powerful for leaders who had a chance to give democracy a chance in the last few years.

As of 2017, it looks as though it could many years before the Foundation will be torn by having to select just one recipient from among a pantheon of statesmen. Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe, Congo Brazzaville’s Denis Sassou Nguesso, and Yoweri Museveni in Uganda, and Kabila in the DRC are guaranteeing there the Foundation will not suffer from an embarrassment of riches.