by Nizar K Visram
MARCH this year African people, and the world at large, were informed that the outgoing president of Namibia, Hifikepunye Pohamba, 79, is the winner of the Mo Ibrahim award for 2014. It comes with a lump sum of US$5 million and after ten years a lifelong ‘allowance’ of US$200,000 per year.
The award was founded by Mohammed “Mo” Ibrahim, a British billionaire of Sudanese origin, in order to encourage African leaders to hand over power peacefully and constitutionally. It is given to a former African executive head of state or government who ‘steps down willingly’ after two terms and for their ‘exemplary’ leadership in fighting poverty and upholding national integrity. It is the biggest award of its kind in the world, larger than the Nobel Peace Prize, for example, that is worth around US$1.5 million.
The Mo Ibrahim Foundation previously awarded the prize to the presidents of Cape Verde (Pedro Pires in 2011) and Botswana (Festus Mogae in 2008). Former Mozambican president Joaquim Chissano was the first laureate of the prize in 2007. Former South African President Nelson Mandela was also made the inaugural honorary winner in 2007.
Pohamba is a founder of the South West African People’s Organisation (SWAPO) liberation movement that successfully fought the South African apartheid regime’s occupation of Namibia. He was first elected in 2004 and again in 2009 and stepped down at the end of March after his successor, prime minister Hage Geingob, won the November 2014 elections.
Chairman of the award committee, former Organisation of African Unity (OAU) secretary general Dr Salim Ahmed Salim, described Pohamba as someone who “bettered the lives of his people.”
At the press conference in Nairobi, Kenya, where the winner was announced, the prize committee said Pohamba is rewarded for the “important socio-economic gains made in his country, for assuring national cohesion and reconciliation, and for stepping down after two terms.”
Dr Salim described Pohamba’s leadership as ‘exemplary’ and said he was someone who respected the rule of law, especially when it came to term limits.
Yet Namibia is a young nation facing many challenges, including widening social and economic inequality.
It is said rewarding leaders who respect democracy has come at an appropriate time. Opposition is growing against attempts by leaders to stay in power. In Burundi and Togo, for example, polls went ahead this year with the incumbents standing for third terms.
The question, however, is whether the Mo award is really an inducement for African presidents because they do not earn enough. To be sure, most former presidents either receive a sizeable pension or have stashed away enough money. In which case the US$5 million prize may be too little for them to step down.
One can hardly envisage Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe or Equatorial Guinea’s Teodoro Obiang Nguema, both in power for several decades, deciding to retire in order to grab the Mo Ibrahim reward. Burkina Faso’s former president Compaoré was promised the position as head of the Francophone Organisation by his French masters if he stepped down after two terms. He wasn’t interested and the result was a mass uprising that forced him to flee to a neighbouring country.
One also needs to reflect on the relevance of the Mo award in enhancing accountable leadership. The amount of money involved is staggering given the poverty and exploitation of ordinary Africans. It is extravagant considering that African presidents on retirement get very generous packages. There is a serious need to assess whether it is working in producing or encouraging accountable leadership on the continent
Some might say the Mo Ibrahim Prize is well intentioned, yet it is difficult to see it as anything but a bribe to leaders to abstain from dictatorship, to respect the rule of law, and to retire when the time is up.
While the International Criminal Court (ICC) was formed supposedly to deter mass murder and such crimes by Third World leaders, prosecuting them when the Western powers decide such leaders have indulged in it, the Mo prize is a ‘carrot’ meant to encourage African leaders to ‘rule well’ in the hope of pocketing the cash at the end of their tenure.
Both the ICC and the Mo Prize aim at the same thing – to either caution the leaders with prosecution or to bribe them to do the job for which they are paid. The Mo Prize is a bribe, however well intentioned, for African rulers to behave.
One can ask how come the African leaders are so enraged with the ICC and not the “bribe”.
Surely the ICC draws the anger of African leaders because it carries severe penalties, while the Mo prize leads to a comfortable nest in post-retirement life
One can also look at Mo Ibrahim and see him using his money to treat African leaders as if money is a big deal to them, as if that would influence their decision to retire even when it makes sense for them to stay on.
If democracy is about popular choice and the will of the people, Mo Ibrahim obviously does not want the principle to apply even when people genuinely want their leaders to stay.
There are examples of leaders who have stayed on in power for long periods because circumstances (if one can use the word) demand that they do so. That doesn’t necessarily make them authoritarian, though authoritarian leaders do tend to stay put.
Konrad Adenauer of the then West Germany, Theodore Roosevelt of the United States, and Urho Kaleva Kekkonen of Finland all had long tenures at the helm. Julius Nyerere of Tanzania, Sam Nujoma of Namibia and Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore did the same.
Staying a long stretch in power is therefore, in itself, not enough evidence of bad leadership. Perhaps the Mo award needs to take this into consideration. Due to such flaws the award has come under fire.
Professor Issa Shivji, a prominent public intellectual from Tanzania said Mo Ibrahim’s prize for retired African presidents is an insult to the African people. He raises a number of questions around the award such as how and what is “good governance” and why it is only applied to Africa. And most importantly “for which and whose democracy they are getting a prize”.
Thus, it is naïve to award a person with a cash prize for bringing peace or democracy to his country. Even worse is to cite “good governance” as an achievement for awarding an individual president of a country.
To be sure, what is good governance? Who determines what is good and bad governance? What yardsticks are applied? And why are these yardsticks applied only to Africa? Why doesn’t anyone award a Western prime minister or president for ‘good governance’?
Shivji contends that Mo Ibrahim’s prize for a retired African president is an insult and condescending to the African people. “First, it is belittling African people. Dictators and undemocratic rulers exist all over the world, including in the West which has given itself the right to judge others as ‘good man’ or punish them for being dictators.”
It is for the people to decide who is a good or a bad leader and how to award a good one and punish a bad one. If at all, people would award their leaders by putting their picture on a postal stamp. And if they had 5 million dollars to spare, they would probably build schools to produce future good leaders rather than give it away to Pohambas and Chissanos to “live a better life”.
After all, dictators are not only made in Kinshasa (Mobutu) or Central African Republic (Bokassa) or Entebbe (Idi Amin) – they also exist in Washington, Paris, London or Tel Aviv.
So, when our leaders receive prizes for their democratic achievements we should ask ourselves for which and whose democracy they are getting a prize. Are they getting the prize for a neo-liberal democracy under which the World Bank and ‘development partners’ impose so-called economic recovery programmes and privatization of national assets and resources?
For, after all, good governance is nothing but an IMF-World Bank imposition as a means of implementing packages that wreak havoc with African economies.
Who assesses the Bushes and Obamas, the Harpers and Merkels for good governance? Who sets the standards? Surely, Africans have to judge our leaders, based on our own yard sticks?
The same thing goes for democracy. Whose democracy? What democracy? There are many poor people in Africa who cannot afford the basic necessities of life. Rather than further enriching the past presidents Mo can at least extend his concern to these people. He should stop insulting the feelings of Africans by peddling the imperialist line.
Shivji advises Mo Ibrahim (Sudanese-born British citizen) who made millions from the sweat and blood of the African people to return a few million to the people by building schools, dispensaries, and water wells in his own country rather than giving them to the Chissanos of this world. “By so doing he adds insult to injury by robbing (poor) Peter to pay (rich) Paul”.
Obviously, the award is not presented to leaders who make a fundamental change in the socio-economic conditions of their people, but rather those who toe the ‘good governance’ line.
In other words, Mo Ibrahim is not funding any revolutionary leadership in Africa. He is for the status quo leadership. For him a good leader is one who keeps the boat sailing (irrespective of the conditions of the people inside the boat)
What he does is to award some retiring president with so much money for a job he (or she) was paid for abundantly in the first place. He would thus expect African masses to use his parameters to judge their leadership.
Nizar Visram is an independent writer on socio-economic issues. He is a citizen of Tanzania, currently living in Canada, and can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org