7 December, 2009Issue 10.5Africa

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Rewarding the Rich

Mike Jakeman

© Penguin Books Ltd.

The decision to award the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize to President Barack Obama was met with widespread surprise and confusion from the world’s media. The most plausible interpretation of the accolade was that the Nobel committee was eager to motivate Mr Obama and to remind him of how much he could achieve. In Africa, a Sudanese-born British entrepreneur, Mo Ibrahim, is trying a similar motivational trick, but with a prize even more lucrative than Mr Obama’s Nobel.

In 2007, Mr Ibrahim used a fortune made from selling mobile phones to create the Ibrahim Prize for Achievement in African Leadership. Worth over $5 million, the Ibrahim Prize is available every year to an African leader who has exemplified good governance. The size of the prize has given the Ibrahim Foundation plenty of headlines, but the implicit assumption that financial reward is the best way to nurture African leadership has not stimulated the debate that it should. Africa is a continent full of infant democracies, and there is great danger in encouraging its people to see wealth as a consequence of electoral success.

Yet wealth is what the prize provides. An Ibrahim Prize laureate receives the $5 million over an initial ten years, followed by an annual bursary of $200,000 for life and $200,000 for ten years for charitable purposes. The criteria for consideration are, as one would hope, fairly rigorous. Eligibility is restricted to those who have been democratically elected, have served their terms within the limits of their country’s constitution, and have left office within the preceding three years. The prize-giving committee is also appropriately heavyweight: members have included former UN secretary-general Kofi Annan, Nobel Peace Prize laureate Maarti Ahtisaari, and the director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Mohamed ElBaradei.

The purpose of the Ibrahim Prize is twofold. Although it exists primarily to reward those whose work and dedication deserve greater recognition, the prize also works as an incentive to those currently in power. Mr Ibrahim has made the point that African leaders often lack the opportunities—such as speaking engagements and authorship—available to retired Western politicians. However, if the prize gains sufficient international prestige, its winners may also enjoy greater status and access to post-retirement benefits. Failing that, in a time of global economic certainty, the possibility of a $5 million nest-egg ought to be enough to catch the eye.

This, however, is the first point of contention. If a leader is determined to have more funds at his disposal, it is difficult to imagine that the hope of future recognition from Mr Ibrahim would prevent him from indulging in the more traditional practices of corruption and embezzlement. Quite simply, $5 million is peanuts to a leader who is serious about getting rich illegally. (A former leader of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Mobutu Sese Soko, was widely reported to have had billions stashed in European bank accounts, as did several other heads of state, such as Omar Bongo of Gabon and Gnassingbé Eyadéma of Togo.) The size of the award hints that it wishes to do more than reward, but it is not big enough to guarantee its effectiveness as an alternative incentive.

Beyond these practical concerns, the Ibrahim Prize begs a more ethical question about the validity of rewarding someone—and not just anyone, but an elected official—so handsomely for doing their job. This is no doubt a point with which Mr Ibrahim would quibble, pointing out that his two laureates to date, Joaquim Chissano of Mozambique and Festus Mogae of Botswana, have demonstrated much more than the mere ability to operate within the confines of democracy and resist plundering the treasury. Mr Mogae was cited for his ability to develop and diversify the economy while combating HIV; Mr Chissano received the prize for his commitment to democracy in the immediate aftermath of a civil war. On the whole, though, Africa has been hampered by two generations of post-independence leaders who abused their positions by rigging elections and hiding money abroad. The main weapon to combat the autocratic tendencies of African leaders is democracy, and the Ibrahim Prize aims to reward those who abide by the ballot box.

Yet the size of the award and the fact that it is given to an individual (and not his country) effectively undermine the democratic process. The Ibrahim Prize contributes to a problem that African countries have faced since independence: the concentration of power among the elite. The idea of the Big Man leader who oppresses the political opposition, lives extravagantly on plunder from natural resources, and surrounds himself with a corrupt coterie is becoming anachronistic. But it is also a reminder of the dangers of giving any single person or group too much influence. Awarding a prize to a head of state implies a level of control over a society that democracy attempts to limit. It would be grossly unfair to suggest that the Ibrahim Prize could result in—or even encourage—another generation of Big Men, but it is hard to shake the notion that an award meant to benefit the continent should emphasize rule by the many, not an individual leader.

When choosing its third laureate in October, the committee faced a difficult decision. Of the most high-profile candidates, Olusegun Obasanjo of Nigeria should have been ruled out when he unsuccessfully attempted to change the constitution and run for a third term. South Africa’s Thabo Mbeki was also eligible, but the lasting impressions of his presidency–his bizarre and damaging views on AIDS and his unwillingness to rebuke Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe–cast doubt on his leadership. Many commentators believed that this situation would clear the way for John Kufuor of Ghana, but his administration was hampered by rumours of corruption. Moreover, he is already handsomely rewarded by a hefty state pension.

Given these options, the foundation made the decision not to award its prize to anyone. This has always been a possibility—Mr Ibrahim has referred to the fact that the prize is not necessarily annual—but the decision still seemed antithetical to the foundation’s aims, not least because the decision prompted a blizzard of negative press coverage. Newspapers in the UK responded with pieces titled “Does anyone govern well in Africa?”, “No-one worthy” and “African ‘good leader’ award fails to find winner”. Headlines like these reinforce negative stereotypes about African governance and work against Mr Ibrahim’s goals.

Ultimately, though, Mr Ibrahim’s decision was as correct as it was unexpected. Recognizing the paucity of good governance rather than lauding an unworthy winner affirmed the foundation’s integrity, reinforced its independence, and disproved suggestions of inter-African cronyism. The decision also hints at the foundation’s wider aim to be a tool for African self-assessment—one willing both to praise and to rebuke.

In planning the evolution of the Ibrahim Prize, the foundation could do worse than follow the model of the Nobel committee, which has managed to subordinate the financial prize to the status of the award itself. To this end, the Ibrahim Foundation should reduce the value of its prize, which is grotesquely large as a pension but far too small to counteract corruption. The committee should also award the prize less frequently, raising the standard of its laureates and increasing its international prestige. These steps would allay the suspicion that the prize serves only to make richer the continent’s richest men.

Mike Jakeman graduated in 2006 with a degree in English from Keble College, Oxford. He now works for the Economist Intelligence Unit.

Photograph © Ibrahim Foundation