Five million US dollars was up for grabs for good governance in Africa, but this year no one earned the prize. What is the Ibrahim prize and what does the fact that no one won it say about the continent?
The panel of judges tasked with awarding the Mo Ibrahim prize for achievement in African leadership decided that no one deserved the honour this year. That panel included former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan and Botswana's President Ketumile Masire, who said that despite lengthy deliberations, the prize committee could not select a winner.
A tough job
Mo Ibrahim is a Sudanese-born telecommunications magnate, who in 2008 was named the UK's most influential black person. In 2007, he began handing out his African leadership prize, which is awarded to a democratically elected former leader of a sub-Saharan African country. Mr Ibrahim has said the prize is intended to provide an incentive for African leaders to pursue good governance and to avoid the temptation to cling to power after their democratic mandate has expired.
Mo Ibrahim says good African leaders deserve the award because they face what must seem like insurmountable challenges:
"The task of an African leader is huge. You compare what a European leader would be thinking when he or she goes to sleep, what AngelaMerkel will be saying, what Gordon Brown will be saying: Hip operations now need a waiting list of three months instead of two months. Inflation jumped a quarter of a percent. And African leaders can go to bed thinking: I have three million starving people. I have half a million kids not placed in a school. Half of my country doesn't have clean water. It's tough. It's really a tough job."
A mixed picture
This year's award committee considered eleven potential recipients including the former South African president Thabo Mbeki and John Kufour, the former president of Ghana. These two men were considered the frontrunners. However, Mr Mbeki would have been a controversial choice as many believe he did little to help resolve the political crisis in Zimbabwe following that country's elections. He has also come under fire for doing too little to fight the spread of HIV/AIDS. Unlike Mr Mbeki, John Kufour has few detractors, making it more perplexing that he was not selected.
Mo Ibrahim says no disrespect was intended by the decision to withhold the prize. But according to Steven Gruzd, head of the Governance and African Peer Review Mechanism Programme at the South African Institute of International Affairs, this may be a good year not to give out the award given recent developments on the continent:
"We've seen the return of the coup d'etat. We had three or four of them last year in places like Mauritania and Madagascar. There is a mixed picture. I don't think you can just find one trajectory for Africa but you can see a lot of progress but also a lot of reversals."
Listen to the interview with Steven Gruzd
A past generation
The Ibrahim foundation has been criticised for not handing out the prize this year. Some say the decision undermines the progress that has been made in Africa over the past year. Others have questioned whether the global economic crunch was the deciding factor, though Ibrahim has denied this. There are also positive reactions. Some analysts say withholding the award adds to its credibility as it indicates that the jury is looking for leaders who truly deserve the award. Diane Abbott, a UK MP of African descent, supports the award but wonders if it is not too retrospective in nature:
"I think the prize is a fantastic idea. I think their criteria are a little narrow. As it stands I have to look backwards to outgoing leaders and a past generation. I think they should also think in the future of giving awards to the rising generation of African leaders, particularly women, who are making such an impact in leadership."
Despite Mo Ibrahim's ambitions, it is unclear whether his award affects good governance in Africa. Five million dollars may be a paltry sum when compared to the money available to a corrupt head of state. It is also unlikely that money is the only motivator for corrupt leaders. Power and influence can be just as seductive. Nevertheless, the Ibrahim prize sends the message that good governance can also have rewards. That may be just what African leaders need to hear.