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Will the Largest Financial Prize in the World Improve Governance in Africa?

Namibia's outgoing president Hifikepunye Pohamba. Photo released under Creative Commons by Agência Brasil.

Namibia's outgoing president Hifikepunye Pohamba. Photo released under Creative Commons by Agência Brasil.

After 2011, it took almost four years for the Mo Ibrahim Foundation to find a suitable next recipient for its Ibrahim Prize for Achievement in African Leadership. In late 2014, the Prize Committee selected Namibian president Hifikepunye Pohamba.

Hifikepunye Pohamba has been Namibia's president since 2005. His second terms ends on March 21, 2014.

The Ibrahim Prize, which recognises and celebrates African leaders who have developed their countries, lifted people out of poverty, and paved the way for sustainable and equitable prosperity has been awarded only four times in eight years. Past recipients are Joaquim Chissano of Mozambique in 2007, Festus Mogae of Botswana in 2008, and Pedro Rodrigues Pires of Cape Verde in 2011.

The recipient receives US$500,000 a year for ten years, and US$200,000 a year thereafter.

The Foundation explained the reasons for choosing president Pohamba:

This award from an African foundation is a celebration of achievement in African leadership on the African continent.

The Prize Committee has decided to award the 2014 Ibrahim Prize for Achievement in African Leadership to President Hifikepunye Pohamba of Namibia.

President Pohamba’s focus in forging national cohesion and reconciliation at a key stage of Namibia's consolidation of democracy and social and economic development impressed the ‎Prize Committee. His ability to command the confidence and the trust of his people is exemplary. During the decade of his Presidential mandate, he demonstrated sound and wise leadership. At the same time, he maintained his humility throughout his Presidency.

He was deeply committed to the rule of law and to respect for the constitution, in particular on the issue of term limit. The Prize Committee also commends his respect for political opposition. His particular emphasis on issues of gender equality led to the notable achievement that 48% of Namibia's parliamentarians are female.

Opinions about the merits and relevance of the award have always been sharply divided. In 2009, Ory Okolloh said she did not see how the prize enhances governance and leadership in Africa:

I don’t get how the prize enhances governance and leadership in Africa – the problem is that most African leaders today are thieving, corrupt, buffoons who spend their time in office lining up their pockets so deep that the Ibrahim prize is chump change and that issues of legacy are irrelevant (see e.g. “I have no regrets”Moi), but I do get the part that decent leaders need a plan B – post retirement…although the fact is that most of them are voting themselves very nice “exit” packages anyway (see Mozambique, Ghana) . But, rather than rewarding African leaders for doing what they should be doing as a matter of course, why not set up a fund where e.g. if they want to build a library, or write a book, or set up a business – they have to apply for the money. So they have a plan B, it’s just not automatic.

Better still. Just shift the foundation’s focus away from things that have a minimal impact on the future of African leadership…I mean the index and the prize are just as about as impractical you can get if you are serious about changing the face of African leadership…if you ask me.

What should you be doing then you ask?

Well, any organization that is trying to do any serious work around leadership in Africa has make young people the core of any programming. Otherwise you haven’t looked the demographics of Africa yet and seriously thought about the implications. Convincing the Mugabe’s of the world to step down, is only part of the problem – you have to ask who is replacing the old guard? Is there a pipeline? Are the replacements different? Or are they just a younger, hungrier, more cynical version of the same (see Kenya’s parliament today).

I see that your foundation does offer scholarships to rising leaders, that’s a good start. But if the intention is to grow leaders at home, I would offer scholarships to enable students to attend local institutions as well.

And scholarships are so inside the box.

How about a fund for young Africans who are running for office – they have to come up with a plan, sign a commitment to good governance, and commit to being open with their campaign and if they get elected with their voting records in Parliament, public declarations etc….sound a bit crazy? Maybe. But in comparison to a index of democracy…hhhm.

Or if that’s too political – a travel fund/scholarship for young Africans to travel within Africa and spend a month or 6 months or a year – living in a different country, doing community service, writing a book, taking pictures…whatever – the underlying idea being that they would have the opportunity to get to know their own continent, to expand their worldview in a different way, to network with their fellow Africans, and to start building cross-border relationships which are critical to the future of the continent (think trade, ease of travel, etc.).

Discussing the Foundation's choice for 2014, Robert I. Rotberg, a fellow at Woodrow Wilson International Center, asked, “Did the Ibrahim foundation make the right choice?” He pointed out that most of the accomplishments the prize committee noticed where not of his own doing but his predecessor's, the first president of Namibia, Sam Nujoma:

The extent, however, to which Pohamba can take credit for these favorable results is questionable. He has been a very lackluster president of his country, and much of the progress which the ranking systems and the prize committee has noticed is largely either Nujoma’s doing or the product of other effective hands within the SWAPO ruling party. Human rights advances have been made despite official opposition. Having a free media has been achieved, too, by strenuous local efforts, certainly not thanks to a benign government. No one within Namibia would have imagined a leadership prize going to someone of Pohamba’s limited accomplishments and relatively low profile.

Indeed, if anything, Pohamba should be acclaimed for what he chose not to do, not for what he did. SWAPO has now transformed itself, thanks in part to Pohamba’s refusal to oppose change, into southern Africa’s first democratized liberation political party. Unlike the African National Congress in South Africa or the Zimbabwe African National Union – Patriotic Front in Zimbabwe, over the course of 2014 SWAPO underwent a quiet internal revolution. No longer were Ovambo, the dominant ethnic group, guaranteed the top spots. Nujoma’s son, a potential heir to Pohamba, was pushed aside. In fact, SWAPO decided at two consecutive party congresses to be guided by the wishes and votes of members, not by an outgoing president.

As a result, Hage Geingob, 74. assumes Namibia’s presidency on March 21, after serving as prime minister and being exiled briefly by Nujoma. Geingob is a Damara, one of the smaller ethnic entities in Namibia, and received a British Ph. D. in 2004 for a thesis on how to promote good governance in Namibia. He was one of the founders in 2004 of the African Leadership Council.

Professor Calestous Juma, Faculty Chair of the Mason Fellows Program at Harvard Kennedy School, has a different take. He argued that Africa needs more governance prizes, not less:

Much of the debate has focused on the relevance of rewarding presidents with funds they probably do not need. Others question the criteria used for selecting the winners and argue that judgment on leadership performance should be a national matter.

These while these arguments are valid, they miss the critical role that prizes perform is benchmarking excellence. The size of the prize is an indication of the premium placed on good leadership. If good leadership was so abundant in Africa such a prize would possibly not be needed.

The prize and the media attention it generates inspires leaders and their followers to think about the value of excellence in public service. The existence of a benchmark for governance makes leaders reflect on their contributions irrespective of whether they will win the prize or not.

Unlike other prizes where winners are based on public expectations, the decision is based an elaborate research effort that uses a wide range of metrics to recommend candidates to the section committee. One can disagree with the criteria but cannot question the commitment to rigorous review.

It is true that some countries are more difficult to govern than others. This is not a reason to question the relevance of the prize. It is in fact an argument for more prizes, not less. There are many other African entrepreneurs who could help to broaden the base for excellence in public service by supporting other prizes.

Professfor Makau Mutua, a distinguished Professor of Law at the State University of New York, disagreed with Calestous Juma in a tweet that sparked a Twitter debate between the two:

The Ibrahim Prize is the largest individual prize in the world.

Two other Twitter users briefly debated the award's merits:

Daniel Finnan refers to a scandal involving Pohamba's daughter, whose company was awarded a multi-million construction contract.

Calestous Juma, meanwhile, pointed out why prizes for excellence such as this one are deeply resented:

  • Ndamona Tuhadeleni

    My name is Ndamona Tuhadeleni, I am a Namibian national and I can tell you that Robert Rotberg is either confused or has never been to Namibia, or maybe he has one or two Namibian friends and therefore assumes that they are the majority of Namibian opinion.
    Firstly President Pohamba did not inherit Nujoma’s leadership style, Nujoma is qouted as stating that ‘If you see an english man, dont hesitate to put a hammer through his head’, Nujoma also banned government advertising in the Namibian Newspaper, which was critical of him and his government, additionally Nujoma changed the constitution in order for him to serve three terms instead of the constitutionally mandated two. A comparison between Pohamba and Nujoma is like comparing apples and oranges and thinking that Pohamba’s accomplishments belong to Nujoma is like thinking like an apple or an orange.

    Pohamba has brought within his two terms more infrastructural developments than Nujoma did in his three terms, the road network in the rural areas combined with the previously ‘developed’ areas rivals that which you would find in a developed country of similar population size.

    Mr Pohamba has lifted the ban on the Namibian newspaper which has been and continues to be his harshest critic, the editor of the Namibian newspaper has had a well known long running feud with the president ever since the split from swapo of the congress of democrats, at which the editor ran a fictitious story that satated falsehoods to Mr Pohamba (secretary general of swapo at that time) Since then Mr Tangeni Amupadhi has gone on to establish insight magazine and has become the editor of the Namibian newspaper. The grudge has never died with Pohamba refusing to be interviewed by a liar and Amupadhi attempting to diminish Pohamba’s legacy.

    Mr Pohamba has embraced his foes, Hidipo Hamutenya, the leader of the current opposition was the guest of honor at his wedding anniversary in 2013, where else in Africa do you see such a thing?
    Mr Pohamba would have had a much easier job had he nominated his friend and prime minister Nahas Angula to succed him as president, in public perception, Nahas was the annointed one, he hailed from the majority oshiwambo tribe and he did not have as many ‘haters’ as Mr Geingob, yet Mr Pohamba sided with Geingob, a man from a minority tribe, concidered arrogant and power hungry, a man who would have had no chance had Pohamba not backed him. Yet Pohamba made phone calls to all delegates of the electoral college while Amupadhi started calling him a lame duck president as the odds were against Geingob and him being Pohamba’s chosen one, would have made Pohamba the president who couldn’t get his chosen heir elected. This is where Rotberg’s logic truly resembles that of and apple, for an orange is fluid.

    Mr Pohamba has always been a humble person, his personality didnt fit that of the presidency because he was just like the rest of us, how naive for some to think that leadership ought to come with grandeur or mid evil entitlement or maybe a doctorate or some other academic qualification. Our president has reduced his convoy and at times it is said he travelled with only three cars with private registration plates and stopped at traffic lights.

    Mr Rotberg the man desrves a beer, if he is not to get the award, then who else would you suggest get it? Some want to make Pohamba’s accomplishments collective accomplishments of his party, but who was at the head of the party? who is responsible for Namibian woman having an equal chance as Namibian men in parliament, Nujoma maybe? No sir it was Pohamba the same with free primary and secondary education which couldnt be achieved in Nujoma’s three terms.

    With regards to his daughter applying and obtaining a US$1.6 million tender for housing where Mr Pohamba had no influence, for he doesnt sit on the tender board nor is he on the selection committee bear in mind that the new opposition leaders brother got a similar tender ten times larger then hers which he sold for a quick buck to a south african company. Yet she delivered the houses on time and she got hauled over the coals for daring to apply. Does the general public want her to live of her father, if she lived of her father in practice, how much would he have been sucking out of the system to support her and his other children. Is she less Namibian than the other hundreds of successful applicants in this population of two million people?

    Corruption in Namibia consists of plus minus seven major cases, therese the Avid scanal, the ODC scandal, the Teko scandal, and the GIPF scandal, these cases were commited during Nujoma’s term and came to light during Pohamba. Pohamba is the same man who dismissed his Chief of defence force major General Martin Shali who hails from Pohamba’s own tribe. Namibia is currently within the top five least corrupt countries in Africa and is second to none when it come to media freedom. Namibia has eradicated polio and malaria is one of those heard of but never seen diseases.

    Mr Pohamba is one of a kind,a real leader who has not lined his pockets, an honest man if there ever was one and I am grateful that he received this prize, we here in Namibia appreciate him with the exception of Mr Rotberg’s one or two friends.

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