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Under the Neem Tree

Mo Ibrahim Prize: A case Of Misplaced Priorities?

  • PublishedDecember 3, 2007

I wish that I could say I am enthusiastic about the Mo Ibrahim Prize for Achievement in African Leadership. But even though its motive is impeccable, it is likely to be viewed with derision, for there just are far too many causes in Africa in more urgent need of monetary assistance, than what could legitimately be seen as the “pampering” of former heads of state.

When the late US President John F. Kennedy wanted to assist people in developing countries with concrete action, he set up the Peace Corps, which built schools and brought mathematics and science tuition to African educational institutions in villages where staffing was a problem.

In the process, Kennedy also gave his country a fantastic head-start in the people-to-people movement. I can testify to this personally, for once, at a party on the campus of Indiana University, at Bloomington, Indiana, I brought unwanted attention to myself by laughing out loud like a demented jackal, having heard a Peace Corpsman who had lived in rural Ghana for two years crack a perfect joke in impeccable Twi.

The joke was at the expense of the rather officious consort of the host, who was making an ass of herself trying to impress all and sundry. This American Peace Corpsman whispered to me in a manner that would not have been amiss had we been two Ghanaians sharing a secret: “Wabo dam kakra!” (she is a bit dotty!). As I laughed involuntarily, another American asked me: “What did he say?” I covered for him by replying, “Oh, he’s just told an adult joke from Ghana. I can‘t possibly relate it in polite society!”

Similar to the Peace Corps is the British Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO), which also provides teachers and other personnel to developing countries, specialising in sending them to remote areas.

Not too long ago in London, I was dumbstruck when a dentist who was giving me treatment revealed that he had spent a year with the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) in Southern Sudan, treating its fighters free of charge. He had been sent there by an organisation called Doctors Without Borders. As you may know, the SPLA was then fighting the Sudanese government and my dentist took no mean risk staying with the fighters and providing them with dental treatment. That is what is called an awesome self-sacrifice.

I am therefore not one to make light of the efforts of other people to serve humankind in their own particular way, and I wish that I could, in good conscience, say that I am enthusiastic about the Mo Ibrahim Prize for Achievement in African Leadership, set up by the Sudanese-born businessman, Dr Mo Ibrahim, founder of Celtel International, the mobile phone giant.

According to the London Sunday Times “rich list”, the 60-year- old Ibrahim, is the 238th richest man in Britain, with his wealth estimated at £300m. He built up his company, Celtel, from scratch after his proposal for a mobile phone operation had been brushed aside by British Telecom. He later received £364m from the sale of his stake in Celtel, and yet has managed to remain chairman of the company.

Apparently, he is not your typical African businessman who flaunts his wealth about, seeking instant fame and or gratification from superficial pursuits. He really wants to serve Africa, and it is for that purpose that he has established the Mo Ibrahim Prize, which doles out a fund worth an eventual $5m to the winner: the ex-leader of an African country who did not “overstay” in office and also exhibited vision in his leadership of his country when he was in office.

The first winner of the prize, adjudged by a panel chaired by former UN chief Kofi Annan, is Joachim Chissano, former president of Mozambique.

Explaining what the panel had looked for in the winner, Mr Annan said: “the Prize celebrates more than just good governance. It celebrates leadership. The ability to formulate a vision and to convince others of that vision; and the skill of giving courage to society to accept difficult changes in order to make possible a longer term aspiration for a better, fairer future.”

Now, I have met Mr Chissano, and he definitely qualifies under the criteria laid down for winning this prize. He is a personable man – so humble and gentle that during his time in power, Mozambicans used to call him “Maria”, (this did not mean he was a weakling, for he was at Samora Mache’s side throughout Mozambique’s struggle against Portuguese rule).

They called him “Maria” because he was a peaceful man, and indeed, one of his greatest achievements was managing to reach an agreement with the South African-financed RENAMO rebel movement, that had been laying waste to vast areas of Mozambique with landmines and vicious attacks against the civilian population.The only thing I don’t fully understand about Mr Chissano is why, up to today, he and the ruling FRELIMO government, are unable to publicise in full, the facts surrounding the air crash in which President Samora Machel was killed in October 1986. I personally suspect that the Nkomati agreement which the Mozambique government reached with the apartheid South African regime in March 1984, might have opened Mozambique up, in some way,  to South African agents, who had two full years to exploit these openings to effect the murder of Machel. There’s also the issue of whether Machel had begun to have second thoughts about Nkomati when he was struck down by a disappointed apartheid regime.

I strongly suggest to Mr Chissano to use the resources now made available to him to go to South Africa and dig even more deeply than his government did when he was in office, into the secret files of the apartheid regime to nail any hidden truth and tell the world. I think that President Thabo Mbeki will help him in that task. Mr Mbeki has vivid recollections of the situation created by the Nkomati Agreement, and he, no less than Mr Chissano, owes Africa a sacred duty to help bring out all – and I mean all – the facts and thus put an end to the conspiracy theories that are still knocking about on Mr Machel’s murder. For Nkomati and its aftermath were among the most important episodes in the African revolution in the 20th century.

On the prize itself, my view is that as it stands, even though its motive is impeccable, it is likely to be viewed with derision in many quarters in Africa. For there just are far too many causes in Africa in more urgent need of monetary assistance, than what could legitimately be seen as the “pampering” of former heads of state.

Consider the following priorities, for instance neglected curable diseases such as river blindness and guinea worm; unhealthy and dirty water-holes from which drinking water is drawn; and of course, bad  and under-funded schools. One member of  Ghana’s Achimota School Appeal Fund, for instance, asked me, as soon as she heard of the award to Chissano, “Hasn’t Mr Ibrahim heard that Achimota, the famous school co-founded by Aggrey of Africa and attended by Kwame Nkrumah is now on its last legs – dilapidated and facing total ruin and in serious need of money for rehabilitation”?

Besides, most African heads of state tend to be pompous and egoistic whilst in office and few people would wish them to be lionised when they leave office.

It must also be pointed out that African heads of state voluntarily seek election to office under a constitution and terms of office that are known to them before they seek office. It is their duty to live within their means whilst in office and to save – like their citizens do – so that if their pensions (usually the salary at which they retire, plus quite a few privileges, such as housing and transportation) are unable to meet their requirements, they can supplement them with their savings.

To award them a prize because they have obeyed their own constitution and not prolonged their stay in office – which, in the final analysis, forms the bare bones of the motivation for the Prize – is to be inordinately indulgent towards them.
What about the argument that the prize will help to deter African leaders from putting their fingers in the national till and helping themselves to its contents? The answer is that corruption is not driven by need, but by greed. And there isn’t enough money in the world to satisfy the greed of any truly greedy person.

For all these reasons, I humbly urge Mr Ibrahim to follow up and quickly set up another prize – one to be distributed to ordinary Africans who make a real difference in their communities by what they do as a service for the good of their people.

Written By
Cameron Duodu

Cameron Duodu (born 24 May 1937) is a UK-based Ghanaian novelist, journalist, editor and broadcaster. After publishing a notable novel, The Gab Boys, in 1967, Duodu went on to a distinguished career as a journalist and editorialist.

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