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Leadership and Good Governance in Africa

June 29, 2009


In my numerous posts about the Enterra Solutions® Development-in-a-Box™ approach, one topic that regularly pops up is corruption. Corruption is inextricably tied to bad governance and bad leadership as well as bad business. Unfortunately, when one thinks about corrupt governments one’s mind often turns first to the African continent. One organization that is trying to change that is the Mo Ibrahim Foundation. Many of you have probably never heard of Dr. Mo Ibrahim or his Foundation. Dr. Ibrahim is one of Africa’s most successful business leaders. Born in Sudan in 1946, Dr. Ibrahim is the founder of Celtel International, a mobile telephone company with operations across sub-Saharan Africa. He worked for several other telecommunications companies before founding Celtel. Dr. Ibrahim earned a Bachelor of Science in electrical engineering from the University of Alexandria before moving to the United Kingdom. There he earned a master’s degree, also in electrical engineering, from the University of Bradford and a PhD from the University of Birmingham in mobile communications.


Based on the fact that he has his own foundation, you have probably already concluded that he did very well in business. According to the Forbes 2008 Rich List, Dr. Ibrahim is worth about $2.5 billion. The Foundation’s web site informs us that, “the Mo Ibrahim Foundation has been established to promote African development, with a special focus on promoting good governance in sub-Saharan Africa.” To meet this objective, “the Foundation has established two major initiatives in support of better governance in sub-Saharan Africa. The Mo Ibrahim Prize for Achievement in African Leadership, awarded annually, recognizes a former executive Head of State or Government who has demonstrated exemplary leadership. The Ibrahim Index of African Governance is a comprehensive ranking of sub-Saharan African countries according to governance quality.” The fact that the Ibrahim Prize is only awarded to “former” government officials makes it a carrot held in front of active politicians as reward worth seeking. In order to be eligible for the prize, “candidates will have taken office through proper elections and left having served the constitutional term stipulated when taking office.” Only former executive Head of State or Government in sub-Saharan Africa are eligible for the prize. The prize is extremely generous.

“The Mo Ibrahim Prize for Achievement in African Leadership, the world’s biggest prize, attracts an award of US$ 500,000 per annum for a period of ten years, and US$ 200,000 annually thereafter. An optional facility of up to US$ 200,000 annually, to support suitable post-office initiatives and activities by the winner, may be offered at the Foundation’s discretion.”

The Mo Ibrahim Prize for Achievement in African Leadership was initiated in 2007 and, to date, there have been two winners. The first winner was ex-Mozambique president Joaquim Chissano, who served from 1986 to 2005 and helped to end that country’s civil war and oversaw the transition to peace. His selection, however, was not without controversy. Chissano’s son was implicated in the death of journalist Carlos Cardoso, a progressive Mozambican journalist who was murdered in 2000. Although Joaquim Chissano has never been connected to the death of the journalist, detractors note that Cardoso was often critical of Chissano’s administration. The second winner was former Botswana President Festus Mogae. According to Reuters news service, “Mogae served two terms in office, nearly 10 years, before handing over to Seretse Khama Ian Khama in a peaceful transition in April 2008. Before that he was vice president for six years.”


Not everyone believes that the Ibrahim Prize is a good thing. Issa Shivji, whom some claim is one of Africa’s most radical and original thinkers, believes the prize is an insult to Africans because its underlying assumption is that Africans can’t govern wisely for the right reasons — they need to be bribed [“The Mo Ibrahim Prize: Robbing Peter to pay Paul,” Pambazuka News, 1 November 2007]. He writes:

“It is naïve, if not mischievous, to award a person – moreover with a cash prize – for bringing peace or democracy to his country. It is even worse to cite ‘good governance’ as an achievement for awarding an individual president of a country. 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 Norwegian prime minister for good governance? … The point about these rhetorical questions should be obvious. Mo Ibrahim’s prize for a retired African president … was in my view an insult to the African people. First, it is belittling African people. Dictators and undemocratic rulers exist all over the world, including the West which has arrogated to itself the right to judge others as ‘good man’ or punish them for being dictators (Saddam Hussein). Despots and dictators are not a monopoly of Africa. African people, like other people elsewhere, have always struggled against them. If they have attained some success in these struggles, it is their collective achievement. Their success is not due to particular qualities of any single leader. Good leaders are as much a product of our societies as are the bad ones. 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. … Mr. Mo Ibrahim: you have made millions of dollars from the sweat and blood of the African people. If you want to return a few million to the people, build schools, dispensaries, and water wells in the south of your own country rather than giving them to Chisasanos of this world. Do not add insult to injury by robbing (poor) Peter to pay (rich) Paul.”

Of course, Mr. Shivji doesn’t mention that most of the world is in much better condition than most of Sub-Saharan Africa. There are plenty of good reasons for singling out that region for special attention and help. His criticism, however, is probably echoed elsewhere in Africa. Perhaps the most important thing that the Mo Ibrahim Foundation has done is establish the Ibrahim Index, “a new, comprehensive ranking of sub-Saharan African nations according to governance quality.” According the Foundation’s web site:

“It has been created in recognition of the need for a more comprehensive, objective and quantifiable method of measuring governance quality in sub-Saharan Africa. The Index assesses national progress in five key areas, which together constitute a holistic definition of good governance.

  • Safety and Security
  • Rule of Law, Transparency and Corruption
  • Participation and Human Rights
  • Sustainable Economic Development
  • Human Development”


The Index was developed by Professor Robert Rotberg, Director of the Program on Intrastate Conflict at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government. He is a world-recognized authority on good governance. Professor Rotberg spent over five years developing an index to rank the countries of sub-Saharan Africa according to the quality of their governance. Hopefully, the index will have a positive impact on the area. When the World Bank issued its Doing Business Index, countries immediately began reforming in order to make their ranking rise. Hopefully, the same effect will occur with Ibrahim Index. The section of the Index that interested me most was the section on Sustainable Economic Development. Authors of the index introduce it this way:

“Sustainable economic opportunity is an essential political good. Well-governed nation-states enable their citizens to pursue personal entrepreneurial goals and potentially prosper. They do so by providing regulatory frameworks conducive to such prosperity and by creating stable and forward-looking monetary and fiscal policy environments that facilitate and encourage national and personal wealth creation. Arteries of commerce — a robust physical communications and transportation infrastructure — are also critical to the achievement of these national and personal objectives. Significant, too, is the extent to which African countries are safeguarding their environments while fostering economic growth and infrastructural development. Doing so assists in sustaining economic opportunity and human development over the long term.”

There is some evidence that countries are taking notice of the Index and improving as a result. Sitting atop the Sustainable Economic Opportunities Rankings of 48 Sub-Saharan countries is Mauritius. It began with a score of 63.8 (2000), improved to 66.2 (2002), then to 70.9 (2005), and achieved a score of 71.4 in the latest index (2008). Regardless of what you may think of the Mo Ibrahim Prize for Achievement in African Leadership, Dr. Ibrahim is correct that good governance is a critical pre-condition for sustainable development. Past efforts have done little to improve governance in Africa and any new direction is worth trying. More importantly the Ibrahim Index provides “objective criteria by which citizens can hold their Governments to account.” If leaders will rise to the challenge, Africa can finally begin to progress more rapidly.

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