JOHANNESBURG // A billionaire and a Harvard professor launched two rival African governance indices in South Africa within days of each other after the former partners split over an academic row despite their shared purpose. In one corner stands Mo Ibrahim, a self-made Sudanese telecommunications mogul who founded Celtel International, an African mobile phone firm, in 1998 and a mere seven years later sold it for US$3.4 billion (Dh12.5bn).
Pledging himself and his fortune to improving the abysmal standards of rule that blight much of Africa and condemn millions of its people to poverty, he endowed a foundation in 2007 to develop a governance index and funded a headline-grabbing $5 million annual prize - the world's richest award - for an African leader who improves his citizens' lot and hands over power to a democratically elected successor.
In the other corner is Robert Rotberg of the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, a prolific author on conflict, development and leadership in Africa, Asia, the Middle East and the Caribbean, who originally developed the index for Mr Ibrahim's foundation in 2007, before the two fell out. Their ideals are so similar as to be almost identical. "Africa is not a poor continent, yet we are poor people and that's because of bad governance," said Mr Ibrahim. "We have some really democratic countries with legitimate leaders who really care about building their countries. We have some countries run by dictators.
"Governance matters. We want to quantify this and give it to civil society and indeed the governments themselves to see where we are succeeding and where are we failing." Prof Rotberg echoes those thoughts. "There are distinctly two Africas," he said. "There's the Africa that is doing extremely well, that's prosperous, that's well governed, that's producing political goods for the citizens of those countries. Then there's the other Africa where there's conflict, where tyranny reigns, where nothing very much good happens at all."
The print version of his Index of African Governance - which maintains the same methodology as that which he used to develop the Ibrahim Index - runs to 225 pages. "Civil society can use our work to negotiate for improvements. Improving the lives of African peoples is the ultimate purpose of an index like this," he said. Both Prof Rotberg's survey and the new Ibrahim index were launched in South Africa over the past week, in Johannesburg and Cape Town respectively.
They both score countries on a variety of indicators such as safety, rule of law, human rights, economic opportunity and human development, although with different weightings and data sources. The findings of the two reports have thus been similar - the top and bottom 10 countries on each are the same, albeit in different orders, except for one entry. After all the enthusiasm that greeted the creation of the Ibrahim index and the Ibrahim Prize in 2007, the impact of the project is likely to be weakened by the split, which happened towards the end of last year, triggered by a dispute over editorial policy.
Mr Ibrahim "wanted more control of the index than we were prepared to give him", said Prof Rotberg. "That wasn't possible. We didn't want to lose academic freedom to a sponsor." The billionaire denied the claim, countering that his foundation's index has been improved with the addition of more indicators, and the intent had always been to "Africanise" the research to give the continent "ownership" of the process.
"This is a project, it has to be controlled by a body, not an individual, and it has to be an African body," he said. "The simple answer is the editorial control is in the hands of the board. I have all these honourable people on the board and if I wanted to have control over this and over that, do you think this board would stay in place? "We have got African scholars producing this, an African foundation funding it and then there is a gentleman sitting 10,000 miles away saying I need to have editorial control of this. Why? By what right?"
But Moss Ngoasheng, a South African academic and businessman who sits on the executive council of Prof Rotberg's project, said: "Academic output is academic output, whether it comes from Africa or whether it comes from the US. "If you are a policy formulator, whether it's from the World Bank, or BIS [Bank of International Settlements] or Harvard or Wits [Witwatersrand University in Johannesburg] is irrelevant. Issues of knowledge should transcend borders, so to speak."
Both the project leaders expressed regret over the split, with Prof Rotberg describing the situation as "ridiculous" and Mr Ibrahim calling it "really sad". "It's unfortunate because it's really a distraction from the important work that we have," Mr Ibrahim said. "We have a lot of work to do here." And in the meantime, as Prof Rotberg put it: "Those at the bottom are all convulsed by conflict, almost by definition have rampant corruption, the lives of their citizens are certainly not favoured by their rulers and in country after country people go hungry a lot of the time."