/ 20 June 2010

African prize for leadership fails to find a winner

All must have prizes — except in Africa, it seems. First the Mo Ibrahim Foundation announced that, for the second year running, it could not find a worthy winner of its $5-million award for excellence in African leadership. Then the UN failed to present an award for “improving the quality of human life” because human rights groups objected to it being funded by one of the continent’s most brutal dictators, Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo of Equatorial Guinea.

Both non-events put the spotlight back on the quality of Africa’s rulers and could lead critics to wonder if the road to hell is paved with good intentions. “The standards set for the prizewinner are high, and the number of potential candidates each year is small,” said Ibrahim, founder and chairman of the leadership prize. “So it is likely that there will be years when no prize is awarded.” Last year the prize committee, chaired by former UN secretary general Kofi Annan, said it had considered some credible candidates but also could not select a winner. Soon the inability of a continent of 53 countries and a billion people to produce a suitable candidate might prove rather embarrassing.

The Daily Nation newspaper in Kenya observed: “The idea was always noble, but its implementation was not thought out clearly.” Ibrahim, however, tried to strike an optimistic note: “Many African countries are making great strides, not just economically but also in terms of their governance. The Ibrahim Index, which measures the performance of African countries across around 80 governance criteria, indicates that the overall standard of governance is improving. “

Ranking a lowly 45th in Ibrahim’s index is Equatorial Guinea, led by president Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, notorious for the arbitrary arrest and torture of political opponents and for plundering the country’s oil wealth. Yet someone thought it would be a good idea for the UN’s scientific and cultural organisation to present the Unesco-Obiang Nguema Mbasogo international prize for research in the life sciences. The prize is funded with a $3-million donation by Obiang and was to have been awarded later this month. Human rights activists and anti-corruption pressure groups accused Unesco of “laundering the reputation of a kleptocrat with an appalling human rights record” and Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu argued that the money should go to Obiang’s impoverished people. The prize has been put on hold pending a review.

Some African leaders, however, are past masters at getting endorsements. When Kaka, the Brazilian footballer and UN world food programme hunger ambassador, played in Zimbabwe recently, there are no prizes for guessing which ageing leader was quick to shake his hand in front of the cameras. – guardian.co.uk