Columns / Discourse / October 24, 2012

Bridge to Democracy: African leadership, hope for change

The world’s largest annual prize for an individual, a hefty $5 million immediate payout and $200,000 for life afterwards, has no recipient for the third time in its six-year existence. What is so damn hard that even with such an extravagant incentive, only one person every other year can win?

Apparently, African governance. Specifically, the Mo Ibrahim Prize for Achievement in African Leadership.

The Mo Ibrahim Foundation has strict qualifiers for the award started by Sudanese cellphone entrepreneur Mo Ibrahim in 2006. It is only for “heads of state or government who deliver security, health, education and economic development to their constituents, and who democratically transfer power to their successor.”

Mo made his fortune by founding Celtel International in 1998, which is now worth an estimated $1.8 billion. His Foundation also publishes the yearly Index of African Governance, which reported this year that while 11 of 14 subcategories saw positive trends, Safety & Rule of Law and Participation & Human Rights have seen declines.

Mo Ibrahim’s London-based organization is not the only African group shaking its head at the sorry state of African leadership: Nairobi-based newspaper The East African’s “2011 African Leadership Scorecard” placed 10 leaders in the “Intensive Care Unit” and 13 in the “Morgue.”

The question, then, is why a continent with 54 countries and just over one billion people has such a dismal record of leadership. Typical answers often rely on a “that’s just how it is” explanation: Africans are “lazy, corrupt, divided by tribes and incentivized by a quick buck.” However, this clearly stands on a foundation of ignorance and thinly-veiled racism.

A common answer by Africans and their allies is one word: colonialism. The colonial system, perpetrated mainly by Western powers, plundered the continent of people, of resources and of unity. More importantly, it imposed the de-contextualized systems of the nation-state and capitalism upon the continent in a rough and rushed manner.

The Berlin Conference of 1885 saw the majority of Africa cut cookie-cutter style into pieces to satisfy European geopolitical competition — ignoring entirely the geographic placement and even presence of local ethnic groups. When decolonization gained track in the 1960s, soon-to-be countries had very short transition periods as colonial powers’ priorities were to simply dump the whole mess.

When nations emerged onto the world’s stage, they not only lacked a cultural or social legacy of the aforementioned systems, but previous leadership by colonial powers often demonstrated only the effectiveness of the most ruthless tactics. While they quickly found themselves needing complete overhauls of their government and economy, two superpowers were promising what amounted to majority government funding and a blind-eye in return for joining “their side.”

The effects of these can be easily seen in the history of the Congo. King Leopold of Belgium took it over through treaties signed by tribal leaders that couldn’t speak French in the 1880s and used it as his personal slave plantation for the next two decades — killing millions of Congolese in the pursuit of rubber profits.

Pressure from humanitarian groups and the Belgian Parliament resulted in him selling it to the Belgian government for an enormous profit. External pressure from an embarrassed United Nations and an increasingly impatient Congolese independence movement resulted in elections only six months after announced.

Hoping for change, the Congolese voted for the young, charismatic and idealistic Patrice Lumumba. He quickly faced a military coup and a resource-rich secessionist state allying themselves with potential guarantors of financial and military stability. Lumumba’s attempts to play the superpowers’ paranoia off each other to get the best situation for the Congo failed, and an otherwise unknown soldier named Mobutu Sese Seko approached the CIA with an offer to run an anti-Communist regime in return for U.S. support.

Mobutu’s vicious kleptocracy robbed the Congo of 30 years of development and kept it institutionally crippled. While the Congo is certainly one of the worst-case scenarios, the challenges that have faced African leaders have only begun to subside as actual investment increases in Africa, replacing corrupt and market-destroying aid programs.

While some have resigned to despair or lower expectations, Mo refuses: “We established the Ibrahim Prize as a recognition of excellence in Leadership. We set a high bar, one that not only could be achieved but one that needed to be if Africa is to meet its potential and the aspirations of our young people. We have consistently maintained that standard even under sustained criticism. Excellence is not a relative concept and we refuse to embrace a lower standard because we are an African institution. … I am delighted to see the positive trends highlighted by this year’s Index. Africa is on the move. But I am also proud of the decision of our Prize Committee. We still have a way to go.”

Tom Courtright
Tom Courtright is a columnist for The Knox Student, primarily covering Africa. He grew up in Kilimanjaro, Tanzania and is currently studying international relations, history and journalism. He begins his volunteer term with Peace Corps in September 2014, on the Pacific island of Fiji.

Tags:  Africa Congo leadership Mo Mobutu

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