Why Have African Leaders Been Unworthy of the Mo Ibrahim Prize?, By Ebere Onwudiwe

As the great American civil rights leader, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., once taught, character is everything. He asked that we judge people by the ‘content of their character.’ This universal insight should apply to those in leadership positions as well. People may fear leaders with flawed characters, but they aren’t respected. Period.

This should make you cry, if it wasn’t so darn funny. What the heck is wrong with African leaders who want to be presidents for life? That’s the worry expressed by Mr. Mohammed Ibrahim, the Sudanese billionaire businessman who founded Celtel and the Mo Ibrahim Foundation, which promotes good governance in Africa.

I knew that Mr. Mohammed has a passion for good governance in Africa, but I had no idea that he was this straightforward and funny. As he said at the 2014 Annual Meeting of the African Development Bank (AfDB) in Kigali, Rwanda: “We are the only continent in the world where we have presidents at 90 years old, starting new terms. I mean, are you guys crazy or what? We see people in wheelchairs, unable to raise their hands, standing for elections; this is a joke.”
Why Have African Leaders Been Unworthy of the Mo Ibrahim Prize?, By Ebere Onwudiwe
And before you think it is all a gag, consider that Omar Bongo of Gabon was in power for 41 years. Jose Eduardo dos Santos of Angola for 38 years, Gnassingbe Eyadema of Togo for 37 years, Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe for 37 years, Côte d’Ivoire’s Felix Houphouet-Boigny for 33 years, and the notorious Mobutu Sese Seko of the Democratic Republic of Congo for 31 years. All of them held on to political power for more years than Jesus Christ was alive. And these are not your worst cases.

Those with this kind of obscene sit-tight record in office on the African continent are still with us: Idris Deby of Chad and Isaiah Afwerki of Eritrea have been in power for 29 years, and we are still counting. Uganda’s and Republic of Congo’s Denis Sassou Nguesso are 34 and 36 years in office, while we continue to count. And the mothers of them all: Paul Biya of Cameroon and Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo of Equatorial Guinea, have each clocked 37 and 40 years in power, respectively. Paul Biya is 87 years old.

The criteria for competing for the Mo Ibrahim Prize are, in my view, laudable but insufficient. They include the obvious ones: That the person must have been a former African head of state or government, must have left office in the last three years, was democratically elected, and served not more than his or her constitutionally mandated term. And lastly, the person must also have demonstrated exceptional leadership. This should actually be the point of departure for the criteria of award of the leadership prize.

The urge to be president for life may be ambitious, but it is a deep character flaw. It is anti-good leadership. This is especially true of leaders who betray the Constitution or amend it to extend their tenures in office. Such leaders cannot be trusted.

The Mo Ibrahim Foundation should reject all sit-tight leaders as a non-starter for competing for the Prize. An award that celebrates excellence in leadership should exclude African heads of government who have been too selfish to leave power to others. The urge to be president for life may be ambitious, but it is a deep character flaw. It is anti-good leadership. This is especially true of leaders who betray the Constitution or amend it to extend their tenures in office. Such leaders cannot be trusted.

As the great American civil rights leader, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., once taught, character is everything. He asked that we judge people by the ‘content of their character.’ This universal insight should apply to those in leadership positions as well. People may fear leaders with flawed characters, but they aren’t respected. Period. People who don’t command respect can hardly make good leaders. Good character attributes, such as keeping your word by your country, trustworthiness, and other traits of integrity should become part of the criteria for selecting the winners of The Ibrahim Prize for Achievement in African Leadership.

The award is a fortune for those African leaders unable to steal in billions. That’s why the generous sum of the Prize is said to be an appropriate inducement to end corruption at the apex of government in some African countries.

The good news is that the Mo Ibrahim Foundation has not been frivolous with its Prize. The Prize is enormous; a US$5 million lump payment spread over ten years, plus an installment of $200,000 per annum for life is more cash than the Nobel Prize, although it could just be chicken change for some of our kleptocrats. Since 2007, it has been awarded in only five out of the 13 years of its existence: 2007, 2008, 2011, 2014, and 2017, which means that in the majority of years within that period, excellent leadership eluded the continent. Or that the billionaire businessman is just saving money.

The award is a fortune for those African leaders unable to steal in billions. That’s why the generous sum of the Prize is said to be an appropriate inducement to end corruption at the apex of government in some African countries. But please, this does nothing in blessed countries like Nigeria. Ours is a country flowing with milk and honey, where US$5 million is only a low hanging fruit for the boys. A Nigerian leader is yet to win the Prize.

Ebere Onwudiwe is a distinguished fellow at the Centre for Democracy and Development (CDD), Abuja. Please send your comments to this number on WhatsApp: +234 (0)701 625 8025; messages only, no calls.

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