Opinion: No African leadership prize for 2 years in a row

WASHINGTON — The Mo Ibrahim Foundation announced for the second year in a row that it has declined to award its prize for excellence in African leadership.

The Ibrahim prize seeks to highlight and celebrate positive leadership on the continent and to encourage African leaders to leave office in a constitutional way.

Regrettably, the prize committee's decision again not to make the award underscores that there is little to celebrate about the commitment to constitutionalism and the rule of law by many African heads of state.

The Ibrahim Prize, established by Sudanese-born telecommunications magnate Mo Ibrahim, is awarded to a democratically elected leader who has served his or her term within the limits set by the country's constitution and has left office within the past three years.

The prize committee draws on a wide range of evidence about good governance or its absence, including the foundation's own Ibrahim Index of African Governance. The prize, perhaps the most lucrative one of its kind, pays $5 million over 10 years and $200 thousand per annum for life thereafter.

In addition, the foundation considers granting a further $200,000 per year for ten years toward public interest activities and good causes espoused by the winner. In 2007, the prize was awarded to Joaquim Chissano, former president of Mozambique for his post-civil war reconciliation policies and his stepping down from the presidency after two terms.

In 2008, it went to Festus Mogae, who also stepped down after two terms as president of Botswana.

The award committee emphasized the contributions of both those leaders to democracy and the rule of law.

Nelson Mandela, perhaps the most deserving African leader, had been out of office too long to be eligible for the prize when it was established. So, the prize committee made him an honorary laureate.

The highly distinguished prize committee, chaired by Kofi Anan, former Secretary General of the United Nations, is independent of the foundation. Its other members are Martii Ahtisaari, former president of Finland; Aicha Bah Diallo, former minister of education in Guinea and director of basic education at UNESCO; Mohammed El Baradei, former director of the International Atomic Energy Agency; Graca Machel, Nelson Mandela's wife and the chancellor of the University of Cape Town; Mary Robinson, former president of Ireland and former U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights; and Salim Ahmed Salim, former secretary general of the now defunct Organization of African Unity and former prime minister of Tanzania.

The committee's deliberations are strictly confidential. Because the winner must have left office during the previous three years, the pool of potential candidates for the committee to consider is necessarily small, and, as Ibrahim himself acknowledges, in some years non-existent.

Of African leaders now eligible for consideration because of the date they left office, three of the most prominent are John Kufuor of Ghana, Thabo Mbeki of South Africa, and Olusegun Obasanjo of Nigeria.

However, judging by the principles of the Ibrahim prize, all three are flawed. The Ghana media speculates that Kufuor's alleged rampant personal corruption might have disqualified him, despite his country's impressive accomplishments in governance and economic development.

As for Thabo Mbeki, his highly controversial and ineffective policies with respect to HIV/AIDS in South Africa and his soft approach to the Mugabe tyranny in Zimbabwe have sullied his legacy. Furthermore, Mbeki was forced out of office by the ruling party following a judicial conclusion that he had improperly interfered in the prosecution of now-President Jacob Zuma for corruption.

Olusegun Obasanjo, once a Western media favorite because of his diplomatic activism for regional conflict resolution and his contributions to peacekeeping, has also been tarred with the corruption brush. He had also attempted unsuccessfully to amend the constitution so that he could run for a third term.

Two other African leaders that are often a focus of Western attention, Rwanda's Paul Kagame and Liberia's Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, might also have difficulty making the cut when they become eligible for the Ibrahim prize. Kagame, despite his real achievements in stabilizing Rwanda and helping it move forward after the 1994 genocide, is increasingly intolerant of political opposition.

Johnson-Sirleaf promised to retire when her term is up. But now, she is saying that she must stay on to complete her work.

Worse for Africa, coups are back. Military intervention in Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Madagascar, Niger, and Mauritania, and the threat of one in Nigeria highlight poor governance or paralysis. It may be that the Mo Ibrahim prize will not be awarded again for some time to come.

John Campbell is the Ralph Bunche senior fellow for Africa policy studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and former U.S. ambassador to Nigeria. His book, Nigeria: Dancing on the Brink, will be published by Rowman and Littlefield in the fall.