Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and the Ibrahim Prize’s exceptional problem

Although considered a darling of the international community, Johnson Sirleaf’s reputation within Liberia is far more mixed. (AFP)

Although considered a darling of the international community, Johnson Sirleaf’s reputation within Liberia is far more mixed. (AFP)

The Ibrahim Prize for Achievement in African Leadership was established more than a decade ago, with the aim of recognising and rewarding exceptional African leadership. Too often, it has risked achieving the opposite.

In 12 years, just five African presidents have made the cut. This week, Liberia’s former president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf became the latest to receive the prestigious award, which comes with prize money in excess of $5-million.

But most years there is no former African head of state that comes close to meeting the Mo Ibrahim Foundation’s strict criteria. Not only must a president have been elected democratically and left office within their constitutionally-mandated terms, but she must also have demonstrated “exceptional leadership” during her tenure.

In the barren years, when there is no prize winner, the Mo Ibrahim Foundation risks reinforcing the same negative stereotypes that the prize was designed to combat: that there is no such thing as good African leadership; that the continent is home to more dictators than democrats.

The Foundation learnt this lesson the hard way. In the early years, the press conferences to announce the Ibrahim Prize winner— or lack thereof― were high-profile events, sometimes spanning multiple cities. But all this attention simply exacerbated the gloomy headlines when no winner could be found. Now, the PR strategy is a simple press release, in an effort to limit the damage.

But even when the prize is awarded, it can send the wrong message.

When asked whether his prize does more harm than good, Sudanese billionaire Mo Ibrahim has always emphasised that the prize is for “exceptional” leadership; that it was not designed to be handed out every year.

It’s a good response: the Ibrahim Prize was never intended to reward presidents simply for doing their job. But in underscoring the exclusive nature of the award, Ibrahim gives the prize committee a major headache when it comes to finding a suitable candidate. ‘Good enough’ won’t do. It must be ‘exceptional’, or nothing – in theory, at least.

That’s why this week’s announcement of Johnson Sirleaf as the latest Ibrahim Prize laureate is so contentious. Johnson Sirleaf, Africa’s first female head of state, has received widespread praise for stabilising Liberia after the end of the civil war. But her tenure was marred by allegations of corruption and nepotism - including, most damningly of all, from her fellow 2011 Nobel Peace Prize winner Leymah Gbowee, a prominent Liberian civil society activist.

Although considered a darling of the international community, Johnson Sirleaf’s reputation within Liberia is far more mixed. In the 2017 presidential election, for which Johnson Sirleaf was ineligible, her vice-president actively distanced himself from her, for fear that her unpopularity with the electorate would derail his own campaign.

The committee that awards the Ibrahim Prize— which includes former South African and Mozambican first lady Graca Machel, and Nobel peace prize winners Mohamed ElBaradei and Martti Ahtisaari— tacitly acknowledged Sirleaf’s flaws. “Such a journey cannot be without some shortcomings,” they said in the citation.

But this did not prevent them from concluding: “...confronted with unprecedented and renewed challenges, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf demonstrated exceptional and transformative leadership…Today, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf stands tall in victory.”

Not everyone is so sure. “Replace Ellen Johnson Sirleaf with any other individual and give them the kind of backing she received, whether its in terms of the debt write off, the international forces stationed in Liberia, the help her government received with reconstruction projects…give that to anybody and they would have done the basics,” said Fonteh Akum, a senior researcher with the Institute for Security Studies. “An exceptional leader would have done more.”

Is Ellen Johnson Sirleaf really exceptional? The answer is far from straightforward. Yet in glossing over her flaws, especially the well-documented accusations of corruption and nepotism, the prize committee is unintentionally endorsing them.

It seems the bar for exceptional African leadership is not so high after all.

It’s a delicate balancing act for the Mo Ibrahim Foundation, who are damned if they do, and damned if they don’t: When the prize is not awarded, it plays into negative stereotypes; yet when a candidate is chosen, the prize committee risks condoning egregious governance abuses.

This is a problem of the Mo Ibrahim Foundation’s own making. In the cutthroat world of African politics, few leaders can truly lay claim to the exceptionalism which the foundation seeks to reward. So maybe it is time to stop aiming for a perfection that does not exist; and, instead, acknowledge that sometimes ‘good enough’ will have to do.

Disclaimer: Simon Allison worked as Communications Officer for the Mo Ibrahim Foundation from 2009-2011.

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