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Hard to find heroes among Africa’s leaders

This week, the Mo Ibrahim Foundation named outgoing Namibian President Hifikepunye Pohamba as winner of the prestigious 2014 Ibrahim Prize for Achievement in African Leadership. “During the decade of his Presidential mandate, he demonstrated sound and wise leadership,” Salim Ahmed Salim, the chairman of the prize committee, said at a Nairobi, Kenya, press conference. “At the same time, he maintained his humility throughout his presidency.”

While the Ibrahim Prize may lack the name recognition of the Nobel Peace Prize, it’s still a very, very big deal. In fact, the Africa-focused prize beats its Scandinavian rival in one very important way: Money. The recipient of the Ibrahim Prize is awarded more than $5 million in an initial payment that is spread over 10 years, with $200,000 every year after that for the rest of their life. It’s said to be the largest prize of its kind in the world (in contrast, the Nobel Prize in 2014 was 8 million Swedish kronor — a little less than $1 million — and a gold medal).

Yet there’s also something really quite disheartening about the Ibrahim Prize: The committee that awards the prize, which is supposed to be given out every year, often finds no suitable candidates. In fact, in the eight years since it was first announced, it has been given out just four times.

Here’s how it runs down.

2007 – Joaquim Chissano, former president of Mozambique, is winner. “He was a powerful voice for Africa on the international stage and played an important role in pushing debt relief up the agenda,” former U.N. secretary general Kofi Annan said while announcing the prize.

2008 – Festus Mogae, former president of Botwana, is winner. “President Mogae’s outstanding leadership has ensured Botswana’s continued stability and prosperity in the face of an HIV/AIDS pandemic which threatened the future of his country and people,” Annan said at the time.

2009 – No prize awarded.

2010 – No prize awarded.

2011 – Pedro Pires, former president of Cape Verde, is winner. “The prize committee has been greatly impressed by President Pedro Pires’ vision in transforming Cape Verde into a model of democracy, stability and increased prosperity,” Salim told reporters.

2012 – No prize awarded.

2013 – No prize awarded.

There are no rules about prizes that say they have to be given out every year — the Nobel Peace Prize has skipped a number of years since its inception in 1901. Still, given the high monetary reward of the Ibrahim Prize and it’s lofty ideals, a 50 percent failure to award the prize is striking.

In fact, it’s those lofty ideals — and probably the high monetary reward too — that explain why the prize is awarded so infrequently. Set up by British Sudanese telecoms billionaire Mo Ibrahim in 2006, the Ibrahim Prize is awarded based on the decision made by an independent prize committee full of heavyweight names — including Nobel laureates Martti Ahtisaari and Mohamed ElBaradei. It has an extremely strict set of criteria to which no exceptions are made. On its Web site, the Mo Ibrahim Foundation lists the criteria for potential winners:

▪ a former African Executive Head of State or Government

▪ left office in the last three years

▪ democratically elected

▪ served his/her constitutionally mandated term

▪ demonstrated exceptional leadership

In Africa’s young democracies, where coups are more frequent than anyone would like and the most stable leaders can serve in office for almost two decades or more, sometimes finding an individual who fits every single year is not that easy. And while there are a number of good African leaders, they don’t space out their exits from office to enable them all to win consecutive prizes.

Ibrahim himself acknowledges that the standards are very high. “It is a prize for excellence in leadership. We are not lowering our standards,” he told Al Jazeera this week. “If this prize was offered to European presidents and leaders, how many … would have won this prize in the last eight years?”

That’s a fair point, but it’s hard to miss the negative message sent by announcing that no leader in the entire continent of Africa is worthy of the prize so frequently. Each year that no winner is announced, there’s a barrage of negative global headlines about the quality of African leadership. “The shame ends,” is how a relieved South African newspaper the Mail and Guardian titled their coverage of Pohamba’s win.

Adam Taylor writes about foreign affairs for The Washington Post. Originally from London, he studied at the University of Manchester and Columbia University.

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