“The new generation of African leaders faces a major challenge: lifting millions of people from poverty. This cannot be achieved without strong democratic societies; the functioning rule of law; the provision of health and educational facilities; an empowered civil society; and a framework conducive to strong economic growth. In other words, none of this can be achieved without good governance.”
The above are the reasons the Sudanese-born British businessman Mo Ibrahim set up the Prize for Achievement in African leadership to annually award, may be reward, a former African president whose stewardship convinces the Committee.
So when I woke up yesterday I was extremely pleased. Not for what you may think. Rather I was pleased by what I think was a show of praise regardless of the political colour of the mind. Sounding genuinely concerned, Minister of Presidential Affairs Alpha Kanu called me to say he wanted to express his pleasure at the apparent nomination of former president Ahmad Tejan Kabbah for the Mo Ibrahim Prize. He was excited in his hope that Mr Kabbah would get the award.
A couple of hours later, the minister sounded audibly disappointed when he called me after it emerged that Kabbah had lost out to the former Botswana president Festus Mogae who got the most valuable award in the world in monetary terms – a cool $ 5 million. Almost four times what the Nobel Prize is monetarily worth.
The prize is awarded to an African head of state who delivered in the areas of security, health, education and economic development during their service to their country, and who democratically transferred power to their successor.
Because of this, thinks Alpha Kanu and probably by extension President Ernest Bai Koroma Tejan Kabbah should have got the prize. There is no official shortlist but the names of Kabbah and the laureate, together with the former president of Benin, Mathew Kerokou, were believed to have been under consideration.
In a rare happening, Mr Kerekou ran as incumbent president and lost to his Prime Minister Necephore Soglo. He staged a comeback and won for another term until the two were persuaded not to run again. Under him, Benin became a beacon of freedom of expression and free press on the continent.
If you think about the citation of the award given to the first recipient of the Prize, the former Mozambique president Joaquim Chissano you would think the Alpha Kanu way. Parts of his citation read that he was awarded for “his role in leading Mozambique from conflict to peace and democracy.” While you think about that, how about this year’s citation which praises former president Mogae because his “outstanding leadership has ensured Botswana’s continued stability and prosperity in the face of an HIV/AIDS pandemic which threatened the future of his country and people”.
All decent people on earth respect the Award Committee members of distinguished people among them the former UN chief Kofi Annan, former Irish president Mary Robinson, Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Mohamed El Baradei and the former OAU Secretary General and one-time president of the UN General Assembly, Salim Ahmed Salim. However, Mr Mogae took power in a country that was as peaceful as it was democratic. Work for him to further democratise was not that challenging especially so succeeding a renowned democrat and good leader as Kit Masire. Additionally, Botswana is one of Africa’s most stable countries. It has never experienced a coup and has had regular multi-party elections since independence 42 years ago.
Compare that with former president Tejan Kabbah’s Sierra Leone where the former president took over from war and from a military dictatorship. He brought back peace and set up democratic institutions such as the Anti Corruption Commission. His preference for dialogue was reason many cited for his ability to end the war. Amid criticism and even vilification, he shared power with a band of rebels that had murdered and maimed tens of thousands of people; all in his spirit of jaw-jaw and not war-war.
With Zimbabwe and Kenya still reeling from post-elections disputes with many convinced that the ruling parties stole the people’s mandate, Kabbah followed the example of Ghana and Benin among a few, to hand over power to the opposition.
Since he handed over power, he has been an ambassador of credible elections with the Commonwealth and the Africa Union sending him as chef de mission to elections in east and southern Africa.
The liberal tendencies he imbibed apparently from the decades of service to the United Nations, made him allow the freest press Sierra Leone had ever seen.
So just what could have kept Kabbah out of the winning? It is not immediately clear but there are a few possibilities. How about his lack of leadership in bringing to book one of his party’s parliamentarians, Fatmata Hassan, blamed for the death in 2005 of journalist Harry Yansanneh of For Di People newspaper? A possible dent to his human rights records might be the trial by a court martial and the subsequent execution in 1998 of 24 soldiers convicted for his brief overthrow.
One of the benchmarks as defined by the Mo Ibrahim foundation’s website is human development. At the time of leaving office last year, Tejan Kabbah left Sierra Leone at the bottom of the UN’s human development index.
There are several lessons to be learned here. The first two Mo Ibrahim awards have gone to leaders in southern Africa. It means West African leaders must work really hard to bring this laurel to the region. Ghana’s John Kuffour may just break the ice next year when he steps down. That, of course will depend on how he handles the transition in his country after the elections later this year. But it is also an eye opener for our present leaders to assert themselves where they should – in the interest of the people and the people ONLY. By Umaru Fofana