Africa’s dearth of leadership excellence


As the world focused on the African Union’s extraordinary session on the International Criminal Court (ICC), little attention was accorded the announcement by the Mo Ibrahim Foundation that, yet again, it would not be awarding the African Leadership Prize to any African leaders.

In an effort to promote peaceful democratic transitions, the Mo Ibrahim Foundation had created this award to be given to departing African heads of state in order to secure their financial well-being in retirement. In addition to $5 million (disbursed over ten years), the recipient is also awarded $200 000 annually for life. The criteria upon which the prize is allocated are that they need to (1) be a former African executive head of state or government, (2) have left office in the last three years, (3) have been democratically elected, (4) have served their constitutionally mandated terms, and (5) have demonstrated exceptional leadership.

Since 2007, only three former heads of state have won the prize: President Joachim Chissano of Mozambique (2007); President Festus Mogae of Botswana (2008); and President Pedro Pires of Cape Verde (2011). South Africa’s President Nelson Mandela was an honorary recipient of the prize in recognition of his role as an exceptional leader. In other words, four out of seven years have passed without the prize being awarded. With each announcement of there being no recipient some observers cry foul, while others acknowledge the dearth of exceptional leadership on the continent.

A cursory glance at elections over the last three years, the period during which a former head of state can become eligible, reveals that the pool of potential candidates is actually quite limited. From 2010 to date there have been a total of 34 presidential elections. In 19 instances the incumbent was re-elected, and 15 new heads of state were appointed.

Re-election is not an uncommon scenario given the advantages that incumbent presidents and governments have in election campaigns, and is fairly typical across the globe. Of the 19 incumbents who were re-elected, seven are among the longest-serving rulers in the world, averaging over 26,6 years in power. In 2009, before the period under review, President Obiang Nguema of Equatorial Guinea was re-elected and is currently the longest-serving head of state on the continent at 33 years, closely followed by President José Eduardo dos Santos of Angola, re-elected in 2012, who began his term a month after Nguema in September 1979.

With 15 new heads of state appointed, there should be a corresponding pool of departing presidents and thus potential prize candidates. However, the 2010 presidential election in Guinea-Conakry was the first of its kind since independence from France in 1958. Of the remaining 14 incumbents who were not re-elected, four died before the end of their term and three were ousted in military coups d’état.

President Amadou Toumani Touré of Mali, for instance, was ousted by a military coup d’état only months prior to the end of his term, which may have led to his disqualification as a prize candidate. President Hosni Mubarak fell victim to a popular uprising, and in Niger, President Mamadou Tandja was removed from office by the military for trying to unconstitutionally extend his term of office, an act that would have automatically disqualified him.

As Pires had won the prize in 2011, the remaining pool of candidates is reduced to six: presidents Mwai Kibaki of Kenya, Fradique de Menezes of São Tomé and Príncipe, Ahmed Abdallah Sambi of the Comoros, Dahir Riyale Kahin of Somaliland, Laurent Gbagbo of Côte d’Ivoire, and Abdoulaye Wade of Senegal. It is to these six that a rigorous application of the prize criteria would have been applied.

Kahin, Gbagbo and Sambi could be disqualified on counts of neither being democratically elected nor honouring their constitutionally mandated term. Gbagbo and Kahin both extended their terms by means that were legally or constitutionally questionable. Gbagbo’s refusal to accept defeat after the elections, the ensuing violent upheaval, and the ongoing ICC trial against him would not count in his favour. These three would undoubtedly fail to qualify in the category of demonstrated ‘exceptional leadership’, the qualitative component of the prize criteria.

Within the remaining and diminished list, only Menezes is without great controversy. His election and re-election for a second term were not disputed and seem to have taken place within a democratic context. Menezes did not try to extend his tenure of office or to disrupt the transition.

Although Menezes did not commit any obviously egregious acts by abusing his position or power, he also did not distinguish himself as an exceptional leader. One can only surmise that, due to the dire economic conditions and extreme levels of poverty on these small islands, the Prize Committee did not see his tenure in office as being of great note. In other words, in terms of the qualitative criteria, a leader must not only serve his/or her term but must also demonstrate that during this period the conditions of his/her people had improved.

The remaining two candidates were of an entirely different calibre. Both figured prominently on the world and continental stages, and played important roles in the political paths of their countries. However, both Kibaki and Wade have been highly criticised and their tenures in office have been marred by events that have led to some questioning their excellence as leaders within a democratic context.

Wade was a giant figure in West Africa and enjoyed great popularity for most of his term. However, towards the end of his time in office, his efforts to centralise power and ensure a family heir to the presidency betrayed his promising start. His altering of the constitution, which allowed him to claim eligibility for an additional term, was widely disputed and no doubt contributed to the lack of popularity that led to his losing the 2012 election.

Kibaki’s transition to his second term of office was equally problematic, if not more so. The haste with which he claimed electoral victory in 2007, the violence that ensued, and the problematic transitional government that resulted, did much to provoke political stagnation and a general decline in Kenya’s human development ratings.

Whether or not either of these former heads of state would or should have qualified for the Mo Ibrahim African Leadership Prize is questionable. Despite their early promise, both leaders ended their tenures in the presidency on less than auspicious terms.

One can therefore see, perhaps, why once again the prize was left un-awarded, and why, with so few eligible candidates, perceptions regarding the lack of good leadership on the continent persist. What may be more remarkable is that, of the 34 presidential elections that have taken place since the beginning of 2010, only four have resulted in an opposition candidate taking office through peaceful and democratic means.

With governance indicators showing long-term stagnation, particularly those around rule of law and corruption, and evidence signalling that many African states will fall well short of the Millennium Development Goals, it is time to insist that heads of state should not only be held accountable for acts that they commit against their people, but also for what they fail to do for their people.

Written by Stefan Gilbert, Senior Researcher, Governance, Crime and Justice Division, ISS Pretoria.

This article was first published in The Sunday Independent.

Republished with permission of ISS Africa. The original story can be found here.