LONDON // Democracy in Africa is flourishing as never before, despite high-profile crises in Kenya and Zimbabwe, the continent's most generous philanthropist said yesterday. "This year has been a triumph for African democracy," said Sudanese-born Mo Ibrahim, a mobile phone entrepreneur who has established a foundation to promote good government in Africa. "The crises in Kenya and Zimbabwe tell us that it is no longer possible to steal an election in Africa. Ten years ago the electorate would have swallowed a false result, the incumbents would have won the elections and the world would have accepted it. Now the people will not stand for it. This is wonderful progress."
Mr Ibrahim was speaking after the announcement in London that the former president of Botswana, Festus Mogae, had won the Mo Ibrahim Foundation's US$5 million (Dh18.36m) African leadership prize for 2008. The prize is believed to be the largest in the world, dwarfing the Nobel prizes, which amount to $1.34m. The $5m is paid over 10 years, after which the winner gets $200,000 a year for life and the possibility of a similar sum each year to be donated to good causes.
Those eligible to receive it are democratically elected African leaders who leave office within the term limits set by their country's constitution. Announcing the winner, Kofi Annan, former United Nations secretary general, said Mr Mogae had "ensured Botswana's continued stability and prosperity in the face of an HIV/aids pandemic which threatened the future of his country and people". Mr Mogae, a British-educated economist who stepped down after two terms, had spread the proceeds of the country's diamond wealth among the population and created jobs beyond the mineral extraction sector.
Mr Annan, chairman of the prize committee, praised the ex-president for his "prudent, transparent and honest use of natural resources". Botswana had proved that mineral wealth need not be a "curse", as in other parts of Africa, but could promote sustainable development. Some guests at the announcement ceremony questioned the relevance of Botswana to the rest of Africa, given its small population of 1.8 million and vast diamond wealth that ensures it has no foreign debt.
Aicha Bah Diallo, former minister of education of Guinea and a member of the prize committee, pointed out that her own country and Sierra Leone both had diamond resources, but this had not led to development. In the case of Sierra Leone, it had fuelled a civil war. In addition to the prize, the foundation publishes an annual Index of African Governance, where governments are ranked in five categories - security, rule of law, human rights, economic opportunity and human development.
Mr Ibrahim, who is a charming but retiring figure, did not speak at the ceremony except to introduce the prize committee. He did, however, answer a question from The National afterwards. "You have to look at the millions who queued to vote in Zimbabwe. This is something which gets forgotten. The good news gets masked by the two or three trouble spots," he said. He said two-thirds of African countries had improved their governance scores over the past year, indicating that civil society was making progress against dictatorship. Botswana, for example, is in the top five for all categories, except for safety and security where it is ranked 34th.
The foundation deals with countries south of the Sahara, leaving out the Arab countries of North Africa, some of which are ruled by seemingly immovable military men. President Hosni Mubarak has been in power in Egypt since 1981, while Muammar Gaddafi has ruled Libya since 1969. Mr Ibrahim was born in Sudan, but grew up in Alexandria, Egypt, where his family went without food to educate him. He won a scholarship to Britain and went on to design the first mobile phones for British Telecom.
Frustrated by that company's slowness to join the mobile revolution, he went on to found his own company, Celtel, to bring mobile communications to Africa in defiance of warnings he would not make a cent due to pervasive corruption. In 2005 he sold the company to MTC of Kuwait for $3.4 billion. The foundation stresses that its money all comes from an African business and Mr Ibrahim is keen to put that money back into the continent.
The index and the prize are intended as tools for African people to needle their governments. He also wants to end the stereotyping of Africa in the West. "If you ask people about African leaders they mention Nelson Mandela or Robert Mugabe - either a saint or a devil, nothing in between. Actually there are a lot of good, successful African leaders," he told the BBC on Sunday. This month his cloak of anonymity was blown away when he was voted by a panel of influential black Britons as the country's most powerful black man. He claims to be astounded to have become well known.
Mr Annan spoke optimistically about the aftermath of the contested election in Kenya in December. "Kenya pulled itself back from the brink. We will see a much stronger Kenya in future." On Zimbabwe, he was more circumspect, saying that meetings on ending the power-sharing deadlock were continuing. The relentless optimism about the future of Africa that Mr Ibrahim exudes is not shared by all African analysts.
Mr Annan was asked about the trend among long-serving African rulers to amend the constitution to allow them to stand for third terms. This has happened in Burkina Faso, Chad, Gabon, Guinea, Namibia, Togo and Uganda. Mr Annan said: "I share your concern. The constitution should not be changed to suit any particular leader. I hope parliaments and civil society will resist changes for the convenience of incumbent leaders."
The prize will be awarded in Alexandria on Nov 15. email@example.com