Between Mobutu and Mandela

Ghanaians have lots to celebrate. The football team defeated Brazil in a dramatic final of the under-20 World Cup, that featured a 0-0 tie through overtime and a 4-3 win on penalties, and fans danced in the streets. (Ghana played a man down through much of the match, and goalkeeper Daniel Aygei was extraordinary.) A new fiber optic cable offers the promise of reduced internet rates and the possibility of more business process outsourcing contracts. And there’s oil off the coast, prompting a bidding war between CNOOC and Exxon.

But it’s big news that former president John Kufuor isn’t celebrating this week. Kufuor was the favorite to receive the third Mo Ibrahim prize for African leadership. It’s a big prize – $5 million over 10 years and $200,000 annually for life thereafter – designed to recognize democratically elected former African leaders who’ve stepped down in the past three years after compiling a record of good government. Kufuor was the prohibitive favorite this year – Thabo Mbeki had been forced to resign from his post, while Olusegun Obasanjo is widely viewed as having rigged an election to appoint his succesor. Kufuor, by contrast, saw his party ousted in an election viewed (rightly or wrongly) as being free, presided over dramatic economic growth and was active in international peacekeeping efforts. Ghanaian media outlets were announcing Kufuor’s victory before it happened... and were stunned when the Ibrahim foundation decided not to award the prize this year.

Reactions to the non-award have been mixed. Kufuor’s party is, predictably, furious. The man himself has been gracious, expressing gratitude at being considered for the award. And Ibrahim has taken pains to point out that the decisions aren’t his personally, but those of an advisory board that he doesn’t even sit on. On the other hand, there are legitimate critiques of Kufuor’s presidency – corruption may have increased during his time in office and the former President’s retirement package was excessive.

Peter Guest, writing in the Guardian, suggests that Kufuor didn’t win the prize because it’s unclear whether his economic policies will help Ghana in the long run – he’s run up a substantial deficit, waiting for oil revenues to come online. Guest thinks this is a reason to celebrate the Ibrahim foundation, because they’re raising the standards for African leadership: “Rather than despairing of the plight of African governance, we should be heartened by the decision not to award Kufuor the prize, not because he was explicitly a failure, but because in thinking he automatically deserves it we have once again fallen victim to low expectations and judged him on an archaic understanding of what constitutes African leadership.”

Fair enough. But it’s worth asking whether the Ibrahim prize was designed to recognize the most exemplary leaders in African history or to honor and recognize leaders who took steps in the right direction. When the prize was introduced, the logic for the large financial reward and ongoing revenue stream was that the prize could serve as an alternative pension for leaders who hadn’t enriched themselves by emptying national coffers or remaining in power indefinitely. In a recent article, Ibrahim emphasized that aspect of the prize: “But what do decent, hard-working African leaders have to look forward to once they retire? This is part of the importance of our prize. It provides African leaders with the option of continuing a life in public service.”

Ibrahim ends his article by explaining, “The foundation wants to help restore proper balance to perceptions of Africa, showing the world that our continent is as much about Mandela as it is Mobutu.” Kufuor isn’t the next Mandela, but he also isn’t Mobutu. And if the purpose of the prize is to keep decent, hard-working leaders focused on public service, I think they may have missed the mark here.

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