The Prize for Best African Leader Goes to ... No One

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Tony Karumba / AFP / Getty

Former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo, left, and former South African President Thabo Mbeki

When Sudanese-born billionaire Mo Ibrahim announced an annual $5 million prize to reward Africa's best leaders, he warned that there would be years when "we wouldn't award the prize." Just three years on, and despite considering "some credible candidates," the prize committee said on Monday that no prize would be awarded in 2009. In announcing the decision, committee member and former Botswana President Ketumile Masire said the panel "noted the progress made with governance in some African countries, while noticing with concern recent setbacks in other countries."

The non-award is, of course, a powerful indictment of Africa's still patchy governance and the continent's most recently retired leaders. The Ibrahim Prize for Achievement in African Leadership considers democratically elected former heads of state or government who have left office in the last three years. The prize is worth $5 million over 10 years and $200,000 a year for life thereafter. By making the reward so big — it is the largest annually awarded prize in the world — Ibrahim has said he wanted to create something to encourage African leaders to do good while in power, in part because they might be rewarded in retirement.

The prize committee, which is appointed by former cell-phone magnate turned philanthropist Ibrahim and his board, is nevertheless completely independent. It's a star-studded lineup that is chaired by former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan and includes former Finnish President and Nobel laureate Martti Ahtisaari, former International Atomic Energy Agency head and Nobel laureate Mohamed ElBaradei and former Irish President Mary Robinson. The committee said it would not discuss its thinking behind this year's non-award, though Robinson did note that it would have been hard to award a similar prize to a recently retired leader from any part of the world this year. Ibrahim said that while some of the leaders who missed out are "personal friends," he backed the committee's decision. "Once you put responsible people in this place, you have to respect what they say," he said.

And therein lies a powerful message. Candidates for this year's prize included former South African President Thabo Mbeki, who resigned last year, former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo, who left office in May 2007, and former Ghanaian President John Kufuor, who stood down at the end of his two terms in January. All three have been lauded for their roles in what Mbeki once called an "African Renaissance." But all three were also accused by rivals of consolidating power to the detriment of democracy in their countries. Mbeki was also regularly criticized while in power for his inaction on AIDS and his policy of "quiet diplomacy" toward the murderous regime of Robert Mugabe in neighboring Zimbabwe. Human-rights campaigners accused Obasanjo of unleashing state-sponsored violence on his citizens, both in his reaction to ethnic unrest when he came to power in 1999 and during the campaign for the 2003 election that saw him win a second term. Kufuor, though widely admired for boosting economic growth and reducing poverty in Ghana, led the country during a period when corruption in state institutions was perceived to have risen.

The first two winners of the award, Joaquim Chissano of Mozambique and Festus Mogae of Botswana, were widely lauded for the way they ran their countries. By not awarding the prize this year, the committee clearly feels that none of the eligible candidates quite made the mark on governance that those two men did. It's no surprise that Africa suffers from bad leadership. What is a surprise, and what should be applauded, is a group of respected leaders — African and non-African alike — standing up and stating that quite so boldly. The non-award this year will make future prizes more valuable, more weighty. "It's a decision in the right direction," Kwaku Danso-Boafo, Ghana's ambassador to Britain, told TIME after the announcement. "They're saying that African leaders have improved, but that they have to do more. This stick-and-carrot approach is good." Expect more future non-awards. If a prize like this is to be serious, it's inevitable.