The Standards are Too Damn High

An African leadership prize that frequently has no winners has sparked a debate over whether standards of excellence can turn self-defeating.

Illustration by Tyler Hoehne

Later this year, the Mo Ibrahim Foundation will choose the winner of this year’s Ibrahim Prize for Achievement in African Leadership. Or rather, in keeping with recent tradition, it’s more likely they’ll settle on this year’s lack of a winner. The prize is one of the world’s biggest financial awards attached to a foundation or public honor: Recipients are granted an initial $5 million and then $200,000 a year for the rest of their lives. Not counting two honorary awards to Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the internationally heralded marker of personal service and integrity has only been awarded three times (in 2007, 2008, and 2011) in the seven years since its inception, ostensibly because the committee has been unable to find worthy recipients among eligible African leaders. Now coming up on the prize’s eighth year, many argue that this failure either reflects poor choices and criteria on the part of the prize committee or paints a brutally dim picture of African governance and rulers. But rather than being a terrible thing, the foundation’s reluctance to award a prize may provide room for meaningful dialogue on why no one’s been selected, make the prize really mean something when it’s awarded, and serve as a model for other honors-granting committees all over the world.

In 2006, when the Prize was first announced, neither it nor its metrics were disputed—leaders like Mandela, Kofi Annan, and Bill Clinton lauded its ambition. The prize was the brainchild of Mo Ibrahim, a British-Sudanese cell phone pioneer who made billions spreading wireless technology across Africa, earning him the title of the 71st most powerful man in the world in Forbes last year. Soon after selling his company CelTel in 2005, he used his newfound wealth to set up the Mo Ibrahim Foundation, whose flagship project was an index of African governance (the latest iteration of which was released last month) measuring factors from rule of law to human rights and economic opportunity. Soon after came the prize, an award for former African heads of state who ethically pioneered democracy and sustainable prosperity. “Nobody knows the good guys,” Ibrahim said. “The prize is to bring forward a picture of the good side of Africa.”

In 2007, the first prize went to Joaquim Chissano, the former president of Mozambique, credited with transitioning his country from communism and civil war to democracy and stability before his 2005 exit. The following year the prize went to Botswana’s Festus Mogae just months after he left office and to Cape Verde’s Pedro Pires in 2011 just after his own return to civilian life. Pires won the award not only for his efforts in shoring up domestic democracy and stability but also for mediating disputes in Angola and Namibia through the years. All three decisions seemed to fit the criteria laid out by Ibrahim, who himself stays out of the decision process, but whose awards committee appears to be fair and rigorous.

Dr. Mo Ibrahim courtesy of Chatham House/Wikimedia

It’s the lack of winners in 2009, 2010, 2012, and 2013 that has turned some ire against the prize and its awards committee. The first year that the prize was not awarded, some joked that perhaps Ibrahim had run out of money. But now that the prize has been withheld for more than half of the years it’s been in existence, many have claimed that Ibrahim is using inappropriate metrics—that corruption is at times necessary for action and difficult situations, and he should be focusing more on overall stability as a measure of good governance. Such critics point out that Ibrahim’s governance index gave Tunisia a comparatively high rating just before dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali was ousted in 2011. Giving Ibrahim’s metrics the benefit of the doubt, others wonder if his highly public failure to grant annual awards just reinforces negative stereotypes instead of creating the nuanced debates on Africa that Ibrahim had hoped the prize would generate. More critics still believe the prize is just pointless—though it seems like an enormous sum, $5 million pales as an incentive for good behavior compared to the gobs of money kleptocrats can earn skimming from the public coffers.

Ibrahim rejects all these critiques and grew angry when people accused him of granting Tutu’s honorary award as a smokescreen for the prize’s supposed failures. The prize, he points out, is a measure of excellence and while it does reflect poorly that so few have achieved it, he doubts that western Europeans could have produced real, meaningful winners every year either. His prize, he insists, is about raising the profiles of the underappreciated and truly exceptional, not bribing people to be good, making sure there’s an award every year, or commending a lack of evil.

Whether holding leaders to a standard so high that the prize is not awarded draws too much focus to failures and thus denigrates African politics is a subject of fierce debate. But ideally the choice to limit awards, under Ibrahim’s logic, will make it all the more exceptional and meaningful, drawing greater attention and recognition when it is finally granted. Even negative conversations, in Ibrahim’s world, would ideally lead to serious discussions on what’s wrong with African leadership. And if none of that works and the Ibrahim prize is still a bust because of its tricky subject matter, then just imagine if the same principle were brought on board for something like the Nobel or the Oscars—perhaps withholding, waiting for true excellence, is the key to making such established and often derided awards real and meaningful social institutions once again.