In February, former Liberia president, Ellen Sirleaf Johnson, was awarded the Ibrahim Prize. She is the fifth winner since the Prize was established in 2007. The other four winners to date are Joaquim Chissano of Mozambique (2007), Festus Mogae of Botswana (2008), Pedro Pires of Cape Verde (2011), and Hifikepunye Pohamba of Namibia (2014). (Nelson Mandela’s award in 2007 was honorary). No awards were made in six years: 2009, 2010, 2012, 2013, 2015 and 2016. This essay begins with an overview of the Ibrahim Prize, followed by some comments on the five winners and on the six barren years. In conclusion, I provide a preliminary assessment of the impact of the Prize on achieving respect for constitutional term limits across the continent.
Overview of Ibrahim Prize
The Prize was established by the Mo Ibrahim Foundation to recognize and celebrate excellence in African leadership. It is awarded to a former Executive Head of State or Government by an independent seven-person Prize Committee composed of eminent African and international figures (three females and four males), including two Nobel Peace Prize laureates. Normally, candidates can be nominated within three years after leaving office. They must have been democratically elected and served their constitutionally mandated terms. Furthermore, they are expected to have demonstrated exceptional leadership: to have developed their countries, lifted people out of poverty and paved the way for sustainable and equitable prosperity.
The generous Prize that is widely believed to be the world’s largest is a US$5 million initial payment, spread over ten years (that is, $500,000 annually) and $200,000 yearly for life thereafter. The Mo Ibrahim Foundation states explicitly that the objective is to ensure that Africa continues to benefit from the exceptional leaders who become laureates as the Prize money will enable them to continue in other public roles on the continent.
Five Prize Laureates
Simultaneously with the introduction of the Ibrahim Prize in 2007, the Mo Ibrahim Foundation launched the Ibrahim Index of African Governance (IIAG) that ranks countries across the continent on their governance performance, based on each country’s scores in respect of six broad-gauged governance categories. The categories are: Safety and Rule of Law (personal safety, national security, accountability, rule of law); Participation and Human Rights (participation, rights and gender); Sustainable Economic Opportunity (infrastructure, public management, business environment; rural sector); and Human Development (education, health and welfare).
Normally, one would expect a country’s IIAG scores and rankings during a laureate’s years of service to be high for him/her to have qualified as an exceptional leader. It would also be reasonable to expect the scores and ranking of a laureate’s country to remain high in the immediate years (two to three) following the award. This expectation holds true for three of the laureates: Festus Mogae of Botswana (2008), Pedro Pires of Cape Verde (2011) and Hifikepunye Pohamba of Namibia (2014). Although the IIAG was only launched towards the end of Mogae’s years of service (1998-2008), Botswana was among the top four performers in 2007 and 2008 and maintained the same high performance during the immediate three years after his tenure. Regarding President Pires of Cape Verde, IIAG scores and rankings were available during five years of his ten-year tenure (2001-2011): the country was among the top four performers during each of his years in service as well as during the immediate three years after his tenure. (It is worth noting that both Botswana and Cape Verde have consistently ranked among the top four performers in the IIAG from 2007 to date). Although Namibia’s scores and rankings were slightly lower than those of Botswana and Cape Verde – it is among the top eight performers – the consistency of the country’s good performance over eight years of President Pohamba’s tenure (2005-2015) must have earned him the award. Strikingly, too, the country has remained among the top seven performers during the immediate two years after his tenure.
The two other laureates, Joaquim Chissano of Mozambique (2007) and Ellen Sirleaf Johnson of Liberia (2017), were specially recognised for assuring the successful transition from conflict to peace in their respective countries. And the logic is obvious: assuring peace and security within the territorial area of a state is an incontrovertible precondition for development.
Six Barren Years
The six barren years confirm that the Ibrahim Prize is only awarded when a former African political leader meets the established criteria highlighted above. This means that the Presidents/Heads of Government that were democratically elected and who left office at the end of constitutional term limits during the barren years failed to meet the other criteria of the Prize. The countries concerned include Benin, Gabon, Ghana, Kenya, Lesotho, Malawi, Nigeria, Senegal, South Africa, Tanzania and Zambia.
Attempted tenure elongation which is an automatic disqualifier for the Prize was a factor in at least two cases: Nigeria (2007) and Senegal (2012). As is the case with the countries of Prize laureates, the IIAG scores and rankings of countries that had constitutional leadership successions during the relevant years must have been taken into account in determining that the leaders concerned did not merit the Prize. And without going into the details, two crucial criteria that are covered through combinations of the categories of the IIAG are poverty and corruption levels. It would make eminent sense that a leader who left office with about the same or higher levels of poverty and corruption that he met fails the test of “exceptional leadership”: high levels of poverty and corruption most certainly lead in the opposite direction from sustainable and equitable prosperity. Concretely, then, all the political leaders nominated for the Prize during the barren years must have failed this litmus test of exceptional leadership.
Conclusion: Ibrahim Prize and Respect for Constitutional Term Limits
After eleven years of the Ibrahim Prize, it has emerged clearly that a generous retirement Prize is not enough to dissuade many African political leaders from adopting various stratagems to extend their hold on power. Yoweri Museveni of Uganda has twice battled and won campaigns against constitutional limits on his tenure (in 2005 and 2017). In the same league of abolitionists of constitutional term limits are Denis Sassou Nguesso of the Republic of Congo (2015) and Paul Kagame of Rwanda (2015). Pierre Nkurunziza of Burundi won an unconstitutional third term (“legalized” by a divided constitutional court) in 2015 and has scheduled a referendum to abolish presidential term limit for May 2018. (Strikingly, China’s parliament abolished presidential term limit in March 2018). And Joseph Kabila of the Democratic Republic of Congo deserves mention for flouting his country’s constitutional due date for presidential election: two postponements since the due date in December 2016 and latest scheduled date is December 23rd 2018.
Maybe the important point to make is that internal struggles against unconstitutional extension of term limits for Presidents/Heads of Government have significantly increased across the continent since the 2000s and the Ibrahim Prize only plays a complimentary role. Sometimes, the legislature plays the lead role (Nigeria, 2007) and sometimes it is the judiciary (Burundi, 2015). In a majority of cases, the media and civil society organisations have been active in the struggles for enforcing constitutional term limits. However, in the cases where citizens have had the final say at the ballot box, the results have been mixed: Abdoulaye Wade of Senegal lost his bid for third term at the ballot box in 2012 whilst Pierre Nkurunziza of Burundi and Sassou Nguesso of the Republic of Congo emerged victorious in 2015 and 2016 respectively. And Paul Kagame of Rwanda stands out by winning 99% of the votes (fake or real?) in his country’s 2017 presidential elections.
Leaving aside the limited impact of the Ibrahim Prize on promoting respect for constitutional term limits for Presidents/Heads of Government, I would like to suggest that the Mo Ibrahim Foundation should consider establishing partnerships between Prize laureates and selected African universities. Each laureate should be encouraged to deposit documents of his/her years in office at the selected university for the benefit of researchers. Furthermore, other forms of interactions that would allow the selected university’s staff and students to benefit from the experience and wisdom of the laureate could be agreed between the university authorities and the laureate.