Outgoing Namibian President Hifikepunye Pohamba has been named the winner of the Mo Ibrahim award for African leadership, a lucrative prize that has not been given out since 2011 due to a dearth of suitable candidates.
The award — worth $5m over 10 years and then $200,000 per year thereafter — is open to former African executive heads of state or premiers who have left office in the last three years after being democratically elected. They must have served their constitutionally mandated term and demonstrated exceptional leadership, as measured by the Mo Ibrahim Foundation's annual index of African governance.
“During the decade of Hifikepunye Pohamba's Presidency, Namibia's reputation has been cemented as a well-governed, stable and inclusive democracy with strong media freedom and respect for human rights,” said Salim Ahmed Salim, the Chair of the Prize Committee, at a ceremony in Nairobi on Monday.
Mohamed "Mo" Ibrahim, a Sudanese-British entrepreneur who sold his mobile phone company, Celtel, for $3.4 billion in 2005, set up the Mo Ibrahim Foundation and prize in 2007 to encourage better governance in Africa. He also created the Mo Ibrahim Index, which evaluates a nations' annual performance in categories such as human rights, development and the rule of law.
Pohamba became the first winner of the prize since Cape Verde's ex-President Pedro De Verona Rodrigues Pires in 2011. The Foundation reserves the right to not award anyone the prize if there are not suitable candidates, which is why only five people have won the award in eight years.
Pohamba, who leaves office this month after two terms as president, was praised on Monday not only for tolerating political opposition but for spearheading his country’s aggressive response to the AIDS crisis.
“One of the highest HIV/AIDS prevalence rates in the world has been addressed through an effective national mobilization plan led under his personal authority,” said Salim. “Over 80% of people living with HIV now receive anti-retroviral therapy. HIV infections fell by an estimated 36% between 2005 and 2013 and mother-to-child transmission rates are now below 4%.”
Salim also credited Pohamba with promoting gender equality in the country, noting that 48 percent of Namibia's parliament is currently female.
The prize has been met with controversy since its inception, with some critics arguing it amounts to bribing a leader to do his job. The Foundation has said those concerns are unfounded because awardees do not actively seek the prize.
Asked about the difficult of finding a winner for his prize, Ibrahim told Al Jazeera on Monday that it is a “prize for excellence in leadership. We are not lowering our standards.”
"If this prize was offered to European presidents and leaders, how many...would have won this prize in the last eight years?" he added.
Referring to his foundation's index, which tracked Namibia’s upward trajectory over the years on several indicators like poverty and rule of law, Ibrahim said Pohamba “checked all the boxes.”
"I think [Pohamba] gave us a wonderful example of a leader who came in democratically and moved his country forward, improved education...and paid attention to social cohesion," he said.