The Sudan-born billionaire, Mo Ibrahim, launched an annual multi-million dollar award for the most successful president in Africa last year. Incumbent presidents and those that left office in the past three years are legible for the award. The selection of the recipient of the award will be based on an index developed by Harvard-based political scientist Robert Rotberg, ranking countries according to their economic development, political freedoms, good governance and human rights, among other factors. The president of a country that ranks first shall be awarded the mouth-watering and record-breaking award. The award is worth five million dollars, spread over ten years followed by $200, 000 a year for life.
Mo should be patted on the back for addressing bad governance in Africa. Although many factors explain Africa’s poor economic performance, little emphasis has been placed on lacklustre leadership and abuse of public resources. Limited resources are a big problem in Africa. A bigger problem however, is how those limited resources are utilised. It is often the case that African countries lavish corruption with a good proportion of their resources.
Weak or non-performing state institutions that provide an easy conduit for capture of public resources are a symptom of poor governance. For example, poor tax administration structures have resulted in widespread tax evasion. It is also seen in the laxity towards activities that generate the bulk of government revenue. Have you ever wondered why government departments that generate most revenue are the most corrupt and inefficient? Take an example of immigration and road traffic departments. Their service delivery is horrible in spite of being on high demand. For a quick service, one has to either know or ‘handshake’ someone. Why can’t African governments strengthen these money-making departments? The answer is simple: corruption. Why do public offices complain of being understaffed while there are many unemployed young people to pick up jobs? To create an environment that is conducive for corruption to rear its ugly head.
If African governments are losing resources in rent-seeking, there is no need of giving them more resources. If they cannot use meagre resources well, how do we expect them to use more resources efficiently? Rich countries are rich not because they had more resources at the genesis of their economic revolutions. They used their resources efficiently. The East Asian growth-miracle countries were at the same level of development with a good number of African countries. For example, in 1960, the purchasing power parity-based per capita income of Ghana was higher than that of Taiwan. Ghana’s per capita income was $405.74 in 1960 whereas that of Taiwan was $315.67. Almost four decades later, the per capita income of Ghana staggered at $1384.78 whereas that of Taiwan leapt to $17,742.80, almost thirteen times the per capita income of Ghana! The Asians learnt quickly how to use their little resources efficiently. They invested in projects with high returns while Ghana was busy wasting resources on white elephants. Arguing that Africa cannot develop because of its limited resources does not help.
The Mo Ibrahim award does not offer any incentive for African leaders to espouse good governance. It has painted an unfortunate picture that African leaders join politics not to serve the people but to amass wealth. If they fail to accumulate wealth within their tenure of office, they cling to power. This picture of politics as an income-generating activity does not allow good governance to thrive. People should not join politics to enrich themselves and they should always be prepared to leave office whether they have accumulated wealth or not.
It beats commonsense for Mo to suggest that the majority of African leaders are reluctant to relinquish their power because they are afraid of economic difficulties after their presidency. This reasoning is flawed. Most African leaders cling to power for fear of being prosecuted after leaving office. When they are sitting presidents, the constitution gives them immunity. In view of this, the award does not give any incentive to African leaders to relinquish power. Given that most African leaders swim in money, the award does not provide an incentive at all for good governance.
Another critical issue is whether the index takes into account the rigging of elections. It makes little sense to award leaders who ride on corruption to win presidency. How do we expect the leader who drunk from a cup of bad governance to promote good governance? If the election conduct is considered by the index, it will be difficult for the ‘eminent’ panellists to find someone who could qualify for the award.
The Mo Ibrahim award is a high risk business. It has no predictability. No president is assured of winning the award. If leaders can make cheap and risk-free money as incumbent presidents, why should they take the risk of winning an award that has all the qualities of a lottery? African leaders are better off plundering their economies and hanging to power to avoid prosecution than banking all their hopes on an uncertain award. In view of this, we should expect very little impact of the award on good governance in Africa.
Finally, the award has a major technical flaw. It targets incumbent presidents and those that have left office in the last three years. Why should the cut-off period be three years? Large-scale public investments take time to generate reward. Suppose a president leaves office after implementing a large-scale investment that will take ten years to generate benefits, by the time it matures, the initiator will not be legible for the award. Instead, the beneficiaries of the project will be his successors. This is a disincentive to incumbent presidents against investing in projects which do not qualify them for the mouth watering award because of their long gestation period.
It is not too late for Mo Ibrahim to put his millions to better use. Mo should know that poor governance is endemic in Africa because of weak or nonexistent governance institutions hence strengthen these institutions. Mo can, for example, support the civil society organisation to play their role as public watchdogs. The money may also be poured into the fight against corruption. In many countries, rubber-stamp and toothless institutions have been established to fight corruption. They are ineffective for lack of resources and/or because of the legislation that limits their power to prosecute corrupt high-ranking public officials. In some instances, these institutions are mere rubber stamps to satisfy donor demands. To this end, the Mo Ibrahim millions can have real impact on good governance by strengthening these institutions.
The biggest governance tragedy in Africa is the absence of a middle class that can punish bad governance. What we have is a disproportionate number of people who are illiterate. Illiterate people are easily manipulated and cannot take the government to task over bad governance. Developed countries have a large middle class that pushes the government to come up with sound economic policies. This is why good governance has thrived. For Africa to move an inch, ordinary people need to be empowered through education. Mo should consider taking this direction.
By Tchaka Ndhlovu PhD
Economist who works in Tanzania.
Comment on this article!