Former president of Liberia, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf
For many years Transparency International has been ranking countries from the most honest to the most corrupt in its Corruption Perceptions Index. Most African countries have consistently featured in the bottom half of rankings. Since independence in the 1960s too many African leaders have enriched themselves in office and could not bear to step down from their lofty perch, seeking mandate after mandate. The extreme example is that of Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe, who in his 90s was recently pushed out of office after 37 years.
But even the darkest cloud has a silver lining.
A successful African businessman, Mo Ibrahim of Sudan, who founded Africa’s largest telecom company, Celtel, while becoming a billionaire in the process, was keenly aware of the need for business to operate in an honest and constitutional political environment with all citizens benefitting from sound government leadership.
After selling his company Mr Ibrahim established a foundation in 2006 to fund a prize bearing his name to be awarded to a former African leader who was democratically elected, provided sound leadership, honest government, improved the lives of citizens, and confidently stepped down after his or her constitutional mandate expired. A seven-member international and independent Foundation Prize Committee selects the recipients. The $5 million prize is paid out over 10 years and afterwards the recipient receives $200,000 annually for life.
The US$5 million “Ibrahim Prize for Achievement in African Leadership” was recently awarded to Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the former President of Liberia, who stepped down after serving two terms from 2006 to 2017.
President Sirleaf, the first democratically elected female head of state in Africa, had inherited a country devastated by a dictatorship and a civil war that had taken a high toll on civilians. As President she was able to restore public services, reduce corruption, overcome an Ebola crisis and preside over a peaceful election and transition that resulted in a former soccer champion, George Weah, emerge as the new president (who nonetheless inherited numerous economic problems).
The honor bestowed on President Sirleaf was only the fifth such prize to be awarded and the first given to a woman. Inter alia, this award sends a strong signal to women and girls in Africa that with perseverance it is possible to succeed in the political arena and promote good governance, then turn over the reins of power to someone else after fulfilling one’s constitutional mandate.
The first Ibrahim Prize was awarded in 2007 and went to former President Joachim Chissano of Mozambique who, following independence and the end of a bitter civil war, moved away from earlier adherence to Marxist ideology to pursue a more pragmatic mixed economy that created new opportunities for citizens. He succeeded in getting debt relief for his country and stepped down after two terms in office.
A year later the second prize went to the former President of Botswana, Festus Mogae, who also served two five-year terms starting in 1998. He worked to eliminate corruption and secure a more professional and managerial operation of his country’s natural resources. Under his mandate Botswana became the first of four countries to graduate from the least developed countries category as determined by the United Nations. Today Botswana is considered the least corrupt country in sub-Saharan Africa according to Transparency International, ranking as high as 34 out of 180 countries surveyed in the 2017 Corruption Perceptions Index.
The third prize in 2011 went to former President Pedro deVerona Rodrigues Pires of Cape Verde. He served ten years as President and succeeded in providing needed infrastructure and promoting new industries including tourism from Europe to make his island country one of the most prosperous in Africa. The country also benefitted from the remittances received from its large diaspora. Cape Verde became the second country to graduate from least developed country status in 2010.
In 2014 the fourth prize was awarded to former President Hifikepunye Pohamba of Namibia, the country’s first president since independence, who served two five-year terms ending in 2015. As president he improved health care in a HIV ravaged country, eliminated school fees and promoted the advancement of women as evidenced by their near equal representation in Parliament.
Most recipients of the Ibrahim Prize have established foundations of their own, mainly to promote and advance good governance, educational and developmental projects, thus enhancing their legacy.
Good governance, leadership and commitment to constitutional democracy in Africa exist and should be better known and acknowledged. The Ibrahim Prize helps to bridge that gap.
Vincenzina Santoro is an international economist. She represents the American Family Association of New York at the United Nations.