Sudanese business mogul-turned-democracy-activist Mo Ibrahim recently announced on his website, “This year, my Foundation withheld our Leadership Award for the third time in six years. This [has] prompted much hand-wringing over the state of Africa and in particular the futility of this initiative and the bad name it was giving to the Continent.”
The “prize” in the “Ibrahim Prize for Achievement in African Leadership” is eye-catching: $5,000,000 over 10 years, and then $200,000 a year for life. The conditions for eligibility are just as eye-catching: only former heads of state in Africa who have left office voluntarily, transferred power democratically and, in the minds of an independent prize committee, used their time in office for “transformation of their countries and their citizens’ lives.”
As Ibrahim suggested, his foundation’s decision has caused some hand-wringing. But among many Africans and clear-eyed Africanists, heads are nodding.
For me, it brings to mind a memorable day in the Tanzanian countryside, and a wonderful lady who symbolizes what Ibrahim hopes to celebrate.
I was on a visit meant to highlight U.S.-supported Public Expenditure Tracking Survey (PETS) projects that were beginning to rise in many parts of the country. Similar to taxpayer associations here in the U.S., PETS projects were a grassroots tool aimed at shaping public decision making, and holding leaders more accountable.
My role that day was to highlight the work of PETS volunteers in a particular village by celebrating the group’s launch and handing out some very official-looking awards that were created back at our embassy. Called an “Ambassador’s Certificate of Recognition,” they were a little more modest than what Mo Ibrahim is able to offer.
I kicked off the ceremonies by pulling back a makeshift curtain that covered a lockable glass bulletin board. Behind the glass was a rudimentary budget showing how much money the government was supposedly allocating for key services in the area—and by implication, how much was not reaching its destination. As I looked out over a sea of faces, I swear I could see local officials in the distance with their arms crossed and faces frowning.
Then, standing before a U.S. flag and State Department podium, we turned to our little awards. For the PETS volunteers, it was a somber and serious occasion. None of them had ever seen a U.S. ambassador before, let alone been singled out by one for praise and recognition. As I congratulated each honoree, they used both hands to shake my one—a way of showing respect.
When I read the name of one lady, a young Tanzanian woman in her very best dress, she not only used both hands, but she went half way down on one knee—a sign of deep modesty. “Thank you, Balozi (Ambassador),” she said softly as I handed over my certificate.
I turned away for the next award, but as I did, I heard a loud “whoo–ooo!” I spun around to see that same woman, head thrown back, a broad grin across her face, arms extended towards heaven, doing a dance of celebration.
In a recent New Yorker article, celebrity activist Bono joked that when he travelled in Africa with Mo Ibrahim, “[p]eople were elbowing me out of the way to get to Mo.” He was the real celebrity.
Why is Ibrahim so popular? He doesn’t go around handing out cash. He isn’t promising to build stadiums or presidential palaces, and he doesn’t gesture angrily or rile up the masses by scapegoating others.
The crowds understand what the “handwringers” do not: Africa will have her bright future, not through handouts or promises of handouts, but through just leaders and greater democracy. Back on his foundation’s website, Ibrahim asks the right question in his “Message from Mo”: “We have been described as ‘failing’ to make the award for these years. But is it the Foundation that has fallen short or the political leadership of this Continent?”
During my brief stop in that small Tanzanian village, I tried to honor that special lady by giving out an award. But Mo Ibrahim honored her, and countless others just like her, through the award he didn’t give.