Don’t reward Africa’s geriatric leaders with millions in prize money

Any arborist worth their salt will tell you that you don’t get regrowth by treating dead and dying branches. You trim them off and tend to the tree so it can feed the growth of new branches from which you can harvest new fruit.

Over the past eight years, philanthropist Mo Ibrahim has wasted over $24 million treating dead branches, a.k.a. retired African statesmen. How transformational would it have been if he had channelled the money into the continent’s universities, leadership academies, and private sector, which is starving for investment?

I don’t disagree that good leadership should be recognized. It should. But while Harvard Kennedy School’s Professor Calestous Juma is calling for more prizes for African leaders to encourage better governance on the continent, I disagree profoundly with throwing such large sums of money at Africa’s waning gerontocracy.

The embattled Mo Ibrahim Foundation African leadership prize – a $5 million one-time payment plus $200 thousand annually for life – trumps the Nobel prize by a wide margin. Last week, Namibia’s former president, Hifikepunye Pohamba, aged 79, was selected as the 2014 awardee.

In her book The Bright Continent, author Dayo Olopade noted that “Africa’s force multiplier is nearly 600 million youth between the ages of fifteen and twenty-four, with another 182 million joining the ranks by 2050”. By contrast, our leaders – who are older than the continent’s life expectancy of 58 – fall into the minuscule 3% of the population older than 65.

The greater need isn’t for more prizes for our graying elders, but an investment in Africa’s neglected garden of youth. Sub-Saharan Africa holds the pole position for the largest gap between the median age of the population and that of its leaders at a gaping 43 years. It is inside this gap that investment in leadership training must happen if we are to ever see better governance institutionalized on the continent.

The reward for great leadership should not be short-sighted personal financial windfalls, but a legacy for the ages. Dangling a $5 million prize simply entrenches amoral leadership and corrupt enrichment at the expense of the governed. Morality in African leadership is a commodity to be sold to the highest bidder.

Much of Africa’s legislatures are already buttressed and distorted by too much money. Several parliaments on the continent pay themselves more than their counterparts in Europe or America. In fact, two of the world’s highest paid legislative bodies are in African countries: Nigeria and Kenya. Symbolic attempts at reform in Kenya (due to public pressure) resulted in even more monetary reward for legislators and a deflated civil society resigned to the status quo. It pays to be in government.

African leaders of Professor Juma’s generation are traditionally revered for their age and position in society, rather than what they’ve done for their people. We celebrate them as they drive through dusty, starving villages in their shiny cars, waving promises of deliverance. Olopade further notes that as Africa’s “hierarchical societies insist that the young defer to elders and wait their turn, they fail to provide adequate support, training, and engagement for eventual leadership”. More prizes won’t “force” leaders to listen to their people because they don’t respect or fear their people. They view them as children.

It is not surprising that the largest leadership prize of its kind doesn’t break with the tradition of bestowing praise upon the “hippo generation”, nor is it surprising that Juma himself is advocating for more of it. The prize’s founder and the good Professor are a reflection of their own generation’s narcissism. Professor Juma – in part – is right, “corrupt cultures beget corrupt leaders”. A corrupt culture begets corrupt thinking.

It is telling that the Ibrahim Prize has only been awarded four times in its eight-year history. In its first two years two laureates received the award – Joaquim Chissano in 2007 and Festus Mogae in 2008. But only two deserving leaders have emerged in the last six years due to a “lack of suitable candidates” – Pedro Pires in 2011 and Hifikepunye Pohamba for 2014. If more financial rewards are what’s needed to change the governance landscape in our 54 states, the failure of the prize to catalyze more leaders to reform and retire, is a solid argument against this tunnel vision.

It is not that prizes aren’t useful. Though a distant second on the financial windfall metric, the Nobel Prize is in a league of its own in terms of inspiring excellence. Recipients from the fields of physics, medicine, literature, chemistry, peace, and economics are globally undisputed laureates in their fields. But their achievements are rich harvests from societies that put a premium on investing heavily in their futures – from youth programs, to higher education and private sector investments.

Calls for more African leadership prizes are premature when there exists such a wide gully between the future of the continent and its current leadership. What we need are more investments in all aspects of African civil society. Better leadership on the continent can only be sustainably achieved if we put resources into Africa’s garden of youth.

In a recent a conversation about the Ibrahim prize with Lynn Kirabo – a young Ugandan software engineer – she exclaimed, “Is it true they want to reward African leaders with money? Isn’t that like fueling a forest fire?” The forest, it seems, needs new trees.


This post was originally posted in The Guardian’s Global Development Professionals network 

Comments are closed.