In the history of independent Africa, a period of years that stretches back now about half a century, only two major national leaders, Julius Nyerere of Tanzania and Nelson Mandela of South Africa, have retired in a way that would be considered traditional in the established democracies of America and Europe – namely, they left office voluntarily and retired.
All the others have clung to office to the grave, or been overthrown by coup-d'etats in poorly organized, non-democratic transitions, or, worst of all, have remained forever in office like the hapless 89-year-old Robert Gabriel Mugabe of Zimbabwe. The comically evil Mugabe continues to occupy his presidential palace in Harare year after year, so much like a deadly cancerous lesion on the body politic of his nation, consumed by paranoia and madness, burdening his people with misrule as he approaches inevitably that happy day when a merciful God will end the misery he inflicts on his own people. Incredibly, Mugabe has now been in office for more than a third of a century.
The grim reality of "presidents for life" in Africa has become so bad and so entrenched that a foundation has actually been created to try to reform the situation. The group awards a special prize to leaders in Africa who voluntarily step down after a reasonable term of office to make way for younger men and women to take their place.
Two months ago, for the fourth time in five years, the prestigious Mo Ibrahim Prize Committee announced for the second year in a row that it had failed to find anyone to whom it could reasonably award the Prize for Achievement in African Leadership. For yet another year, the multi-million dollars gift to African leaders who show common sense and civic responsibility went without takers, renewing concern that all African citizens feel about the entrenched mentality that so many African heads of state adopt when they take office: They view their future roles as quasi-monarchs, not servants of their people. African presidents see a nation's wealth not in terms of stewardship, but in terms of plunder.
The prize to step down, created by the highly respect Mo Ibrahim, a Sudanese telecom billionaire, was intended to reward elected African heads of state who retire voluntarily at the conclusion of their mandated terms.
The rules of the Mo Ibrahim Prize are not arduous. It is to be awarded by a special committee to a recently-retired head of state or head of government in Africa who satisfies the criteria of, first of all, having been elected by a democratic process rather than taking power in a coup, of having left voluntarily at the end of his or her constitutionally mandated term, and of having a reasonable list of positive accomplishments in office.
The prize is a rich one: The lucky winner gets $ 5 million paid over ten years. This gift is supplemented by another $ 200,000 annually for life (about the size of the US president's annual pension). This makes the Mo Ibrahim prize the most generous world prize that can be awarded annually.
To the embarrassment of African citizens, the prize is almost never awarded. African "leaders" enjoy staying in the catbird seat, flaunting the perks of presidential power for decades. Critics opine: "Because the Mo Ibrahim prize is given to nobody, it makes Africa look bad." True enough. It has also been reasonably suggested that "leaders should not have to be 'bribed' to be good." Fair enough. So how do we get them to step down?
Let's look at the record. There are rarely any takers in this unique and fascinating social policy experiment. I wish it got more ink in the Western mainstream press. Since it was first put forward by Mo Ibrahim eight years ago, it has been awarded only three times: in 2007, 2008, and 2011. A former president of tiny Cape Verde, hardly a significant African nation, was the most recent beneficiary of the prize. Nelson Mandela was given a special honorary award. Sadly, Mwalimu Julius Nyerere of Tanzania, who was the first African leader to step down voluntarily, died long before the Mo Ibrahim Prize existed.
The current head of the committee that evaluates existing African presidents for the award is Salim Ahmed Salim, the secretary general of the Organization of African Unity (OAU) and a former prime minister of Tanzania. Salim announced six weeks ago that he had considered every African head of state or government who had retired since 2010 before deciding not to award the prize this year. The foundation did not elaborate on its reasons for withholding the award.
The foundation made public also a grim annual assessment of the state of African governance, concluding that while "overall governance continues to improve at the continental level," aspects of life in Africa like personal safety and the rule of law had "declined worryingly." There is "a widening span in performance between the best and worst governed countries," the assessment said, and that divergence "may sound a warning signal, with the new century seeing fewer regional conflicts but increased domestic social unrest."
What will it take to get the citizens of our beleaguered continent to demand that their leaders regard their terms of service as opportunities to serve the people, not to rob them, kill them, or turn them into medieval vassals or subjects, serfs treated far, far worse than our colonial oppressors sixty years ago?
Alas, we are not there yet, but let's contemplate the recently good example of Nelson Mandela, of blessed memory, who never turned his presidency of South Africa into a hog's trough to enrich himself and his family. He provides an example. He proved that it could be done, as did Mwalimu Julius Nyerere, who is rightly regarded as the father of Tanzania (and a mentor of Mandela, a fact that few people remember).
I am filled with pessimism, but Mandela and Nyerere and the generous and brilliant Mo Ibrahim give me a tiny glimmer of hope. May the next fifty years provide far more winning candidates for the Mo Ibrahim Prize in Africa and better governance for all.