That the Mo Ibrahim Foundation declined to award the prize to anyone this year strengthens its credibility. But is the prize the best way to spend over $5 million?
As in 2009 and 2010, this year the Sudan-born entrepreneur and billionaire Mo Ibrahim has decided that no African leader was fit to win the $5 million Ibrahim Prize for Achievement in African Leadership.
The Ibrahim Prize is the world's largest individual prize — the $5 million is paid to the winner over ten years, followed by $200,000 for life from then on, with $200,000 per year available for 10 years for good causes backed by the winner.
The prize intends to recognise excellence in African leadership, and is awarded to African politicians who have not only excelled in office but — and this rules out many — who then stand down voluntarily. In 2011, President Pedro Verona Pires of Cape Verde was awarded the prize, following in the footsteps of Joaquim Chissano of Mozambique in 2007 and Botswana's ex-leader Festus Mogae in 2008.
That the Mo Ibrahim Foundation declined to award the prize to anyone this year (despite its annual Index of African Governance pointing to continent-wide improvements) strengthens its credibility. It is not simply looking to pick the best of a bad bunch — in Ibrahim's words: 'We're going to have a prize for exceptional leadership, we have to stick to that. We are not going to compromise. Everyone understands that excellence is something special.” You could argue that truly excellent leadership is hard to find anywhere, not only in Africa.
The prize money is intended to allow winners to 'use their skills and experience at the continental level once they have left national office.' An interesting idea, although it's not clear whether the prize would need to be quite so generous to support this goal.
Whether it can help encourage good governance in office is something completely different, and even less obvious. It's unlikely that African leaders will be encouraged to behave morally by financial reward alone. And, for the average corrupt dictator, $5 million is not such a huge amount at all.
There are many reasons why Africa has lagged behind economically, and Ibrahim's right that corrupt, unaccountable, ineffective governance has played a big factor in the continent's failure. His philanthropic aims are both ambitious, noble and imaginative — but is the Ibrahim Prize the best way of spending over $5 million?
Read more by Sophie McBain