Tuesday, October 30, 2007

The Mo Ibrahim Foundation African Leadership Prize – An absurdity By Abimbola Lagunju

Created in October 2006, the Mo Ibrahim Foundation launched a five-million dollar prize for “good governance” for leaders of African countries. This African Leadership Award has as its potential beneficiary, any elected African leader that voluntarily steps down at the expiration of his term. Mo Ibrahim says the prize is to discourage African leaders from clinging to power at all costs, to encourage good governance and discourage corruption.

Three key words/phrases, namely “elected,” “good governance,” and “step down” figure prominently in the qualification requirements for this award. “Elected” presupposes an election process, an exercise during which the people of a country decide who they want to lead them. It is a ceremony of the signing of a contract; an employment contract with the conditions that the leader, the employee of the people will, during his term of office deliver goods of public interest to his employers. A condition sine qua non for the validity of any contract, its monitoring and successful execution is that both signing parties fully understand the conditions of their agreement. This is a mandatory first step in signing any agreement. Herein lies the root of good governance. In Africa, it is generally presumed that the mere process of going to the polls in the presence of observers, both local and international implies that the employer and the employee fully understand their duties and obligations in the contract. The Constitution, a complicated document only interpretable by the best minds in the legal profession and often written in the adopted official European language of the country is put on the table as the people’s conditions for the contract with a would-be leader. In a largely illiterate population, it goes without saying that the people, the employers, have no notion of the terms of their own contract. Needless to say that they do not have an informed knowledge of what steps and procedures to undertake when their employee flagrantly breaches the conditions of the contract. They are invited out in a jamboree, in the name of “democracy” to put their hands on a document which they do not understand; and by so doing, the beneficiary of this manipulative exercise claims his dubious legitimacy. The employee, armed with the foreknowledge that his employers have little or no idea of the terms of his employment, buys out the vocal dissenting few through juicy appointments or outright bribery and then puts the majority at his mercy. The international community then comes to the “rescue” of the employers when the employee betrays them. In the process of the “rescue,” very often, the employers are sidelined by the rescuers and the people do not understand the role of the “rescuers”. The “rescuers” may be seen by the historically traumatized majority as interfering in their internal affairs or having a neo-colonizing agenda. The plundered employers then take sides with their merciless employee.

The use of any form of inducement, financial or international recognition to supplicate the leader (employee) not to mangle his employers (the people) does not solve the basic problem of lack of understanding of the conditions of the contract by the employers. The employers need to be assisted to fully understand the duties and obligations of their employees and must be empowered to take appropriate actions against defaulting employees. Mo Ibrahim’s prize does not address this fundamental need. Rather it seeks to reward the employee according to its own criteria. It is not clear if this prize is supposed to represent the gratitude of the people for the execution of a contract of which they have no notion. Or is it a token of appreciation of the foreign arbiters of democracy? Or is it a belated reward for unchecked economic predation under the guise of “liberalizing the economy”? This huge sum, (which some African States crawl on their faces to get from creditors) can strengthen democracy by empowering the people. And one way of doing this is to translate the Contract agreement (the Constitution) into diverse languages of the different nations that make up our continent, so that people in the remotest rural villages will understand the duties and obligations of their leaders, and will be able to clearly differentiate rights from privileges.

“Good governance” is not a gift that the employee bestows on his employers. It is not a privilege to be given or withdrawn at the whims of the leader. It is a right of the people. It is the very foundation of the contract that links the people with their leader. Rewarding a leader for “good governance” reduces the concept to a prerogative of the leader; to be bestowed or not. It confuses right with privilege; and reinforces the existing confusion of these two concepts, not only in the minds of the leaders, but also in the minds of the people. If there would be any prize at all for good governance, it should go to the people for demanding this right from their leaders and for ascertaining that the leader does not confuse his obligations and duties with “benevolence” as is the case in contemporary African “democracies.”

The Mo Ibrahim Foundation African Leadership Prize also seeks to discourage corruption by African leaders. In Mo Ibrahim’s words, “few Africa States can afford to provide their ex-leaders with money to enjoy a comfortable retirement,” and his prize seeks to redress this! In order to discourage African leaders from dipping their hands in to the public purse, Mo Ibrahim Foundation will provide comfortable retirement funds for them!

Firstly, it is not the responsibility of a corporate mogul to reward a former employee of the people. If the leader serves the people according to the letter of the contract of his employment with them, then he and his family will forever enjoy the goodwill of the people after the leader has stepped down. Julius Nyerere, Thomas Sankara and Samora Machel are such examples of leaders whose children, grandchildren and generations to come will always enjoy the goodwill of African peoples. The recent 20th anniversary of the death of Thomas Sankara that attracted thousands and mobilized the solidarity of millions beyond the borders of Burkina Faso is a good example. Mo Ibrahim Foundation’s extravagant five million dollar prize can never buy this goodwill.

Secondly, the targeted leader is not the only public servant that at one time or the other will have to go into voluntary or forced retirement. So what happens to the others? The prime ministers, the governors, the ministers, the district administrators and the whole army of the civil service? Do they not deserve “a comfortable retirement” too? By singling out the president for this award, this Foundation has reduced the whole democratic process to the person of the leader only. The leader is the embodiment of democracy! Everything begins and ends with the president. This reductive prize contradicts the spirit of democracy itself.

Thirdly, how much will the dangling of the carrot of this prize in the faces of serving African presidents influence them to facilitate their nations’ markets for Celtel of which Mo Ibrahim is the chairman and an important shareholder in expectation of this lavish prize? It is an indirect way of currying favours with serving African leaders. The Mo Ibrahim Foundation may be accused of what it claims it wants to eradicate.

Corporate social responsibility is not an investment in a serving or in an ex-leader. Provision of useful social services, the strengthening of democratic institutions and the true empowerment of the people constitute some useful examples of corporate social responsibility.

The Mo Ibrahim Foundation African Leadership Prize should be scrapped. The people come first, not their employees.

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