A fundamental point within Acemoglu and Robinson’s (2013) Why Nations Fail is that the prosperity of a nation relies upon an effective power structure. Political institutions need to be democratic, reasonably centralised, accountable, and inclusive, for prosperity to be found and sustained - much of which is not found within African nation-states. Good governance is fundamental for the developmental prosperity of nations.
The Mo Ibrahim Prize was first established in 2007, and the prize represents a celebration of excellent African leadership. The prize is awarded to a former head of state, or government, for their positive work in enabling the prosperity of their nation, tackling poverty, and sustaining an equitable path of development. The former head of state or government has to have left office within the last three years, have been democratically elected and completed their term, and shown ‘exceptional’ leadership. The prize has two crucial features: celebrating political governance in Africa and identifying role models within the continent. The prize includes $5mn over ten years and then $200,000 per year for life - the largest annual fund. Previous winners include President Nelson Mandela (Honorary) and Joaquim Chassano (2007); President Festus Mogae (2008), and President Pedro Pires (2011) (Mo Ibrahim Foundation, 2013). However, with the prize criteria regularly not being fulfilled, since its establishment in 2007 the prize has remained unclaimed for 3 years - 2009, 2012, and recently 2013. To what extent can the denial of the prize be justified? Does it act to incentivise African leaders to follow good governance?
The past few years have seen African governments, and heads of state, reluctant to leave office; driving political coups; and leading violent crimes against humanity. Mugabe, Kabila, and Kenyatta are but a few articulating the years of sustained bad governance. The prize is only awarded when credit is due - if leaders have made a significant positive impact this will be recognised and rewarded. The prize is therefore for absolute gains in governance, not relative to other countries.
As the prize is not always awarded it avoids the pitfall that distributing a financial prize where no change has been made to political institutions would reinforce a system. The state would continue to function on undemocratic governance, and the reward would become a new example of dead money. Instead it encourages improved control over aid and money transferred to African states, it shows that rewards are given based on merit. The Mo Ibrahim prize therefore encourages the good institutions that are necessary for prosperity (Acemoglu and Robinson, 2013).
 See further readings: Moyo, 2009.
The prize by focusing on leaders ignores the areas where money is needed; not lining already rich people’s pockets but providing money and advice to actually set up these institutions. This means for example ensuring the police and civil servants are well enough paid they don’t resort to corruption etc. Acemoglu and Robinson (2013) highlight that there is also a ‘vicious cycle’ whereby the presence of bad institutions - authoritarian, unaccountable, with limited economic innovations - reinforce poverty and bad governance. Although offering rewards where significant change has happened is a positive model, in reality, many African states require funds to be able to enforce change in the first place and break this vicious cycle.
For good governance to be promoted rewards should not only go to the best, but also the good in a continent where bad governance dominates. For any progress to be made in governance the prize needs to lower standards of expectation, recognise where improvements are made, and use the reward to change the vicious cycle. Some change is better than none; focusing on picking the best with high standards limits any change.
Previous winners - such as Nelson Mandela and Pedro Pires - made significant changes to their nation-states, ending apartheid and promoting social development. The former leaders provided equality and a functioning democracy to their people. Such needs to be the aim of leaders today.
Providing a prize to the highest achievers provides an example. It highlights leaders from even small countries – such as Cape Verde’s Pires – that can serve as role models for Africa’s leaders. Without the prize the most likely role models would simply be those of the biggest states who are highest profile. Mo Ibrahim (2013) has stated the prize is for “excellence, it’s not a pension”. This is why it is not always awarded. The prize is only be awarded when high-standards of good governance are replicated, and maintained, by leaders. Focusing on the top of government encourages a top down implementation of good government. When the leader acts others will follow; a comparatively small amount of money can therefore make a big difference.
The prize is too narrowly defined. At what scale should the change be defined? For example civil-society and community leaders can make significant changes to governance at a smaller-scale; promoting democratic governance from a bottom-up initiative can work as well as top down. On another hand, should we only be focusing on the very top? What about the government officials who are not heads of state but make a change to people’s lives? The narrow focus on the head of a party or state neglects the body - such as finance ministers - that maintains that system of governance and work hard to ensure a democratic transition. The focus on heads of state may deter the state body from ensuring effective governance due to the fact their hard work is not rewarded or recognised.
Due to the relatively young nature of democracy and multi-party rule across Africa, the criteria of potential prize candidates needs to be expanded. The number of former heads of states having left in the past three years is small. Therefore the criteria for nomination needs to change.
The prize is helping citizens to be aware of good governance, and bad, occurring within their state. By granting the prize citizens are shown what leaders have done right; and the publication of the index - the Ibrahim Index of African Governance (IIAG) - shows where improvement may be required. The prize is forcing transparency between governments and society. Information on how states are doing means citizens can take action, and demand change where change is needed. The prize is calling for African citizens to get the leadership they deserved, desired, and have a right to.
By maintaining strict standards on when, and to whom, the reward is provided gives a realistic picture of governance in Africa. It showcases the continued need for good governance; and also doesn’t give citizens and the international community a false illusion that governance is good in Africa when it is not.
Although the prize has gained recognition in the Western world or ‘Global North’ to what extent is the prize, its reward, and meaning, known and understood by African citizens? If the prize is recognising African leadership citizens need to be aware of the prize in the first place - whether their country is up for nomination or not. Awareness is the only way the apparent transparency can hold power and become a reality. Citizens cannot demand change or hold the state to account when they are not aware of the index, the prize, and the so-called changes being made.
How do we define, classify, and recognise good governance? The Mo Ibrahim Foundation has created the Ibrahim Index. The IIAG calculates governance across Africa and assesses it over time. The IIAG shows governance has improved across the continent since 2000; and in 2013 classified Mauritius with the highest rank and Liberia as showcasing the greatest positive change over 13 years. But does the index have the right weighting? Where ‘good governance’ is found changes depending on the weighting applied. Even odder is that although the foundation has this index it is not actually used when awarding the prize, this is awarded by a committee to those who pass the criteria that don’t include the IIAG (Mo Ibrahim Foundation, 2013). The prize is therefore methodologically unsound as a way of looking at and promoting good governance
One of the criteria for awarding the prize is ‘demonstrated exceptional leadership’. This clearly allows the IIAG to be fed into the process as it is the IIAG that can show if the leader being considered has demonstrated this leadership. The IIAG provides a useful tool to assist in deciding the prize winner, and nominees.
The Mo Ibrahim Prize is bribing African leaders to shift towards good governance. The financial incentive is being distributed to entice leaders to follow good governance approaches and models. The fact that no questions are asked on where the money provided goes; how it is used; and what the former leaders spend it on raise further questions. Most importantly to what extent can we claim elaborate bribery is an effective means to enforce good governance within the continent? For a start having what is essentially a bribe to encourage good governance is hypoctitical. Secondly a bribe for an individual relies on that one individual’s actions. Thus in 2007 the prize was granted to Mozambique’s President Chissano. However, since 2007 declines have emerged in the scores concerning law and rights (Mo Ibrahim Foundation, 2013).
Additionally for those motivated by money the money provided cannot compete with potential returns that can be gained from natural resources, tax evasion schemes, and capital flight. The bribery incentive does not compete with potential profits gained through alternative forms corruption (Bedell, 2009).
The reward is an incentive, not a bribe; consider it as being similar to performance related pay. The prize shows how if excellent leadership is promoted and good governance encouraged the leaders will be praised, recognised and rewarded. The prize is not a bribe, but a way of incentivising leaders to follow a path towards good governance. By highlighting cases where good governance has excelled the prize draws attention to the benefits of good governance through a cost-benefit appraisal. The social, economic, and political returns are highlighted; and other African governments encouraged to follow the trend.
Who decides whether governance is going in the right direction within the African continent? The prize committee includes six individuals who make the decision of who is worthy of the reward, and whether it is granted. The panel includes leading figures, not all of whom have held elected positions such as Mohamed ElBaradei, and not all of whom are African, such as Martti Ahtisaari and Mary Robinson (Mo Ibrahim Foundation Prize Committee). Among these distinguished panellists the voice of Africa’s population is missing. A prize about good governance should incorporate a people’s vote as good governance is only relevant if it helps the people. Moreover without a public voice there is a lack of transparency in the workings of the committee and the decisions made. Hardly a good standard for a governance prize.
The committee nominating, and choosing, the final candidates remains un-bias and their expertise within multiple aspects of governance means the high standards can be maintained. Having votes would open the prize up to corruption and attempts to influence the outcome by those who are eligible. A technocratic standard is needed for good governance.
The prize will fail to promote good governance due to the contradictory approach it undertakes. Good governance cannot emerge and be sustained by rewarding former presidents. Having a good former president does not mean their successor will encourage their legacy to continue. Why celebrate good former leaders when we need to focus on what is happening now?
Moreover why reward someone just when they can no longer do any good? The prize suffers from the contradiction of regarding giving up power as a necessary criteria to obtain the prize. This ignores that Africa does not want those who are being successful at promoting good governance to leave their post – potentially to someone who will move backwards. Having a prize for someone who could have done more good had they stayed is contradictory.
Finally the prize is not good for Africa; the prize has raised negative stereotypes of African states, leaders, and systems. The attention gained by the prize not being granted for 3 out of 6 years is maintaining negative stereotypes of African leaders. This will only act to reinforce the global system of power - whereby the West intervene to implement a ‘good’ model of governance, not suited to Africa.
It is not contradictory to offer a reward for good governance after the leader has left office. Dictators holding onto power for long periods are one of Africa’s biggest problems. Rewarding those who step aside shows that an important part of good governance is having presidents who stick to constitutional terms. A stable transfer of power is vital in a democracy. This is something that is even more important when the transfer is to a political opponent. One of the most important advances in governance that can be made is to make be considered normal that the opposition is as loyal to the country as the government. When this happens power can easily be transferred without conflict or resulting disorder.
Acemoglu, D., and Robinson, A, J., Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity and Poverty, 2013.
Bedell, G., ‘The Man Giving Africa a Brighter Future’, The Guardian, 2009, http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2009/feb/01/mo-ibrahim
IIAG (Ibrahim Index of African Governance), 2013, http://www.moibrahimfoundation.org/iiag/
Mo Ibrahim Foundation, 2013, http://www.moibrahimfoundation.org/
Mo Ibrahim Foundation, ‘Prize Committee’, http://www.moibrahimfoundation.org/prize-committee/
Mo Ibrahim, 2013, in Al Jazeera America, ‘No Mo Ibrahim Prize Awarded, Once Again’, Al Jazeera America, http://america.aljazeera.com/articles/2013/10/14/no-mo-ibrahim-prizeawardedonceagain.html