No Mo Ibrahim Prize awarded, once again

Foundation declines to dole out its $5M annual prize to an outgoing African head of state for second straight year

Mo Ibrahim speaks at the launch of the 2013 Ibrahim Index of African Governance (IIAG) and the announcement of the 2013 Ibrahim Prize for achievement in African Leadership in London Monday.
Carl Court/AFP/Getty Images

For the second year in a row, the Mo Ibrahim Foundation will not be presenting its $5 million prize, designated for an African leader who has ruled democratically and stepped down at the end of his or her term, due to lack of suitable candidates.

The Ibrahim Prize for Achievement in African Leadership, the world's largest annual prize, was first awarded in 2007 to President Joaquim Chissano of Mozambique but has only been awarded two additional times, as the prize committee reserves the right to decline the award if no outgoing head of state meets the criteria.

"We set a very high standard, of course, and we are proud of our prize committee for being credible and tough," Mo Ibrahim, the founder and chair of the Mo Ibrahim Foundation, told Al Jazeera's Yasmine Ryan.

"It's a prize for excellence, it's not a pension," he said.

The prize and foundation are both named after Ibrahim, a Sudanese billionaire who struck it rich as an Africa-focused entrepreneur in the mobile communications field and now invests heavily in the continent of his birth.

The board, which is composed of esteemed world leaders like former Tanzanian Prime Minister Ahmed Salim Ahmed and former Irish President Mary Robinson, said Monday that the prize isn't always a given.

"We didn't ever expect that we would award it every year," Robinson commented, defending the decision.

The Mo Ibrahim Prize grants the laureate $5 million over the first 10 years and then $200,000 annually for life. Winners are expected to use the money, in part, to "pursue their commitment to the African continent" after leaving office.

Many observers considered Kenya's former President Mwai Kibaki, who left office in April, to be a potential candidate for this year's prize, but rioting and violence marred his 2007 re-election and his opponent, Raila Odinga, alleged that the election was rigged.

Some observers worry that the foundation's decision to not award the prize — which has been the case four of the last five years — reflects poorly on African leadership.

The committee only considers heads of state who have left their position in the last three years, which means the pool of candidates is small.

South Africa's Daily Maverick on Monday argued that conditions for the prize ought to be adjusted, to include current presidents or other leaders outside politics.

"There would be plenty of candidates for such an award, because — as the Foundation well knows, and is trying so hard to point out — there is no shortage of good African leaders. It's just that most of them don't become presidents," the online magazine said.

Ibrahim responded that to alter the award's premise would be to destroy the brand that his foundation has created.

"What is the objective of this? It's focusing on presidents as tools to change their countries, given the power they have," he said.

'Culture of impunity'

The London-based foundation also publishes the Ibrahim Index of African Governance, which Ibrahim describes as a "scorecard" for African leaders to assess their progress on a number of fronts. The index assigns each country a score based on several criteria, from rule of law to human rights.

Mauritius, Botswana, and Cape Verde topped the 2013 edition of the index, which also found that 94 percent of Africa's population lives in countries that have witnessed an overall improvement in governance since 2000.

On the other hand, the index also shows that the gap between the best-performing and worst-performing countries is widening, which Ibrahim says is related to declining levels of personal safety and rule of law.

Ibrahim said that "the fruits of the economic progress somehow appear to be limited to the top 1 percent of the population."

"That is producing a widening gap between the wealthy and the poor. That produces tension," he said. "We need to look [at] why are we are lacking social cohesion."

The publication of the index comes just a few days after the African Union held an extraordinary session in Addis Ababa, where leaders agreed that no head of state should be tried by the International Criminal Court. Several African heads of state, including Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn, have accused the ICC of unfairly targeting Africans.

Current Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta, who goes on trial next month for crimes against humanity stemming from 2007 post-election violence, has called the ICC "imperialist and racist" citing the fact that each of the court's eight cases have come against Africans.

Five of those cases were brought to the court by African governments, however, and two more came from the U.N. Security Council with full support from its African members.

The indictments relating to post-2007 election violence in Kenya were the first instances of the ICC proactively targeting an African leader.

Africa analysts expressed concern than any undermining of the ICC's mandate by African leaders would contribute to the "culture of impunity" that some say is rampant among the continent's political elite.

Ever the pragmatist, Ibrahim acknowledges that there is "a need for a serious conversation between the African Union and the ICC," but advises against a walk-out from the court.

"Instead of throwing out the baby with the bathwater, we need to find a way to reconcile the two. We need to find a way to the ICC so that it doesn't become just a political tool, as it is perceived by some African leaders."

Yasmine Ryan and Michael Pizzi contributed to this report.

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