Ten years ago, The Economist told its readership that Africa was "The Hopeless Continent". It expressed a sentiment that was pervasive – that Africa was economically backward and that its political leadership was at best corrupt and at worst murderous.
As the publication has been gracious enough to admit since, it was wrong. Many things have been extremely hopeful in Africa over the last decade. Growth has outpaced the rest of the world. World beating businesses have emerged and, given Africa's rich natural resources, financiers are finally starting to wake up to the investment potential of the continent.
Yet the concern about how well African countries are governed is real and remains. It was to promote excellent leadership and good governance that I established the Ibrahim Prize a few years ago. With the funds accumulated from investing in mobile telephony in Africa, my foundation was able to award the biggest annual prize in the world – worth $5m over 10 years – to former African leaders who have governed well, respected their constitution and left office with their country in better shape than they found it.
The first two years we had two winners – Joaquim Chissano, former president of Mozambique, and Festus Mogae, former president of Botswana. Little known outside Africa, both have been outstanding statesmen. By recognising and celebrating their leadership, the Foundation was able to show that the cartoon image of African leaders was out of date. This year, like last year, the prize committee – chaired by Kofi Annan and independent of the board – has not awarded the prize.
So does that mean that African leadership is hopeless? And has the Foundation established to celebrate good leadership in Africa ended up proving that good leadership does not exist?
No. Whether there is a winner of the prize or not, the purpose of the Foundation is to challenge those in Africa and the world to debate what constitutes excellence in leadership. The standards set for the prize are high, and the number of eligible candidates small. So it is always likely that there will be years when no prize is awarded.
Many African countries are making great strides, not just economically, but also in terms of their governance. In addition to the prize, the Foundation publishes annually a rigorously researched index of performance of African countries. It is meant to equip citizens with as much information as possible about how their country is governed and how it compares to others.
The Foundation is anything but complacent about the standards of governance in Africa. It is clear that much more needs to be done. It is for that reason that the Foundation has decided to use the funds that would have been spent on the prize this year for a complementary initiative to promote good governance.
We are initiating the Ibrahim Leadership Fellowships, a selective programme designed to identify and prepare the next generation of African leaders by providing them with mentoring opportunities in key multilateral institutions. The programme will seek to identify talented professionals each year, serving in leading institutions whose objective is to improve the economic and social prospects of the people of Africa.
Far from being hopeless, Africa is full of hope and potential, maybe more so than any other continent. The challenge is to ensure that its potential is utilised. We will aim to play a part in that by equipping people with the information they need to assess the performance of their political leaders, by rewarding outstanding leadership; and by helping to equip some of the brightest and best with the skills they need to allow African countries to meet the expectations of their people. That is the real prize in the Hopeful Continent which the foundation is focused on.
The writer is founder and chairman of the Mo Ibrahim Foundation
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