Leading Article: A worthy prize and an impressive first winner

Click to follow
The Independent Online

We must be wary of falling into the trap of assuming that Africa's problems are solely a result of poor governance. Such an argument is too often used as a convenient excuse by Western governments for not honouring their pledges on aid or trade liberalisation. But, at the same time, it cannot be denied that corrupt leadership is a major problem throughout the continent. Too often, African leaders have torn up constitutional limits on terms in office, rigged elections and ruled as autocrats. The consequences have been predictably disastrous.

In this unpromising context, Mo Ibrahim's Prize for Achievement in African Leadership is a commendable experiment. The scheme, unveiled by the billionaire Sudanese mobile phone entrepreneur last year, aims to provide a substantial pension to one African leader every year. The winner will be someone who has provided good government for his or her people and who left office when the nation's constitution demanded. The first recipient of the prize is Joaquim Chissano, the former President of Mozambique.

This is a worthy choice. During his 19 years in office, Mr Chissano began talks with rebels, which brought an end to the country's civil war. He also used international aid donations to good effect, helping to cushion Mozambique's transition from a Marxist to a free market economy. Mozambique is still beset with problems. More than 15 per cent of its 19 million inhabitants are HIV-positive and the country is still one of the world's poorest. But the situation is significantly better than when Mr Chissano took power.

Just as impressive are Mr Chissano's democratic credentials. He could have legally tried to win another five-year term in 2004 under the terms of the Mozambique constitution, but he stood aside to allow enough space for democratic institutions to develop. Since then, he has performed a valuable service to Africa, brokering peace talks between governments and various rebel groups. Mr Chissano was unable to be in London to collect his prize because he is working in Uganda as a special envoy fo the United Nations.

The establishment of the prize fund has been a laudable act of philanthropy by Mr Ibrahim, someone who has already done a good deal for Africa in his career as an entrepreneur. A decade ago, investors predicted there would be little or no demand for mobile phone technology in such a poor continent. Mr Ibrahim proved them wrong when he established Celtel, specifically to bring mobile phones to Africa. Between 1999 and 2004, there was a ten-fold increase in the number of handsets in use across the continent. And mobile telecommunications are now powering growth, helping Africans to overcome the handicaps of a decrepit transport and landline telephone system. Traders and farmers can now check market prices remotely. Entrepreneurs can set up businesses in remote locations. In areas where electricity is scarce or unavailable, Africans can charge phones with handheld winders. Mobiles have unleashed a great wave of human productivity.

But Africa needs more than technology. It needs good government if economic gains are not to be swallowed up by corruption. Money alone is not the solution. For the most kleptocratic of rulers, Mr Ibrahim's prize will not be much of an incentive. They will have extracted a good deal more than the annual $200,000 pension from their treasuries. The only long-term way to prevent autocracies developing is to strengthen institutions and civil societies. As a way of encouraging that process – and as an African solution to an African problem – Mr Ibrahim's plan is to be encouraged. We look forward to congratulating many more winners in coming years.