/ 16 November 2008

African money for African excellence

Last month the second Mo Ibrahim award went to ex-Botswanan president Festus Mogae. Robert Watkinson quizzed Ibrahim on the prize.

Why did you establish this prize?
We established the Ibrahim Prize to recognise excellence in African leadership. High quality leadership in sub-Saharan Africa cannot be overstated — it is a hard job, with many challenges and few resources. Against those odds, if a leader manages to move a country forward, it is a wonderful achievement. We need to celebrate those achievements and the people behind them.

Secondly, I hope the money from the prize will help ensure we don’t lose the experience and expertise of Africa’s best leaders when they leave office by enabling them to continue in other public roles. The first Ibrahim laureate, Joaquim Chissano, and the foundation’s honourary laureate, Nelson Mandela, are just two examples of the extraordinary contributions that African leaders can make after office.

And, finally, I hope the prize is a way of drawing attention to the real progress happening across our continent and which too often gets overshadowed by the problems and challenges in individual countries. So it is a way of helping get some balance into how people see Africa.

How will the Ibrahim Prize persuade bad leaders to leave office when they can enrich themselves so much more through corruption?
First and foremost, the prize is not a bribe. It is an insult to suggest it is about encouraging people to govern well. It is simply to recognise and celebrate the high standards of leadership already taking place in Africa. There is nothing strange in this. The world has long recognised, for example, scientific and literary achievement. It makes sense that we should also celebrate excellence in leadership — and particularly in Africa where the challenges are so immense.

But wouldn’t the prize money be better spent on practical measures, such as boring water holes or providing anti-malaria nets?
Of course this work is absolutely vital, but that does not mean we should ignore the fact that leadership remains the single most important factor in determining the future of African countries. By governing well in the interests of all their citizens, good leaders create the conditions where all the other challenges, such as health and access to water, can be tackled much more effectively. So I think it is important we also recognise and applaud good leadership.

Actually, the money we are giving is a drop in the ocean compared to the total amount that Africa receives in assistance each year, but we hope that by targeting leadership, we can really help to leverage some of that money given in aid. That would be, I believe, a great achievement.

Why make Africa a special case when there’s a need for good leadership all over the world?
You are right that we need good leaders the world over. But I am an African and my tele­communications business was in Africa. So by funding this prize through my foundation, there is a sense of Africa’s money returning to Africa.

But here there is another important point. I believe sub-Saharan Africa as a whole faces perhaps more challenges than any other area of our planet. It is also the place where there is so much potential, not least in the talents of the people who live here. So for both these reasons, I think this is the area where leadership can have the most impact for good. It’s why I believe it makes sense to focus the prize on African leaders and also why I think it’s right that the prize is the biggest of its kind in the world.

Who chooses the prize recipient?
The winner is chosen by an entirely independent and expert prize committee which, I am honoured to say, is chaired by Kofi Annan. I know how seriously they take their responsibilities. There was widespread agreement in Africa and the wider world that they made the right choice last year in honouring former president Chissano with the first-ever prize. I am sure their decision that former president Festus Mogae should be the second laureate will receive equal praise.

Is there any control over how the prize money is spent?
Absolutely not. The winners are totally independent and the foundation does not seek to influence any winner in how he or she chooses to use the money conferred through the Ibrahim Prize.

Dr Mo Ibrahim is the founder and chairperson of the Mo Ibrahim Foundation (www.moibrahimfoundation.org)