Six years ago, Mo Ibrahim, a Sudan-born British philanthropist who made his billions selling cell phones, established an award to support good governance in Africa: a $5 million cash prize — which includes a $200,000 yearly stipend for life — to be awarded to any democratically elected leader who demonstrated exceptional leadership, served out their constitutionally mandated term, and, most importantly, retired when they were supposed to. The only problem is that barely anyone meets those criteria.

This week, for the third time in four years, the Mo Ibrahim Foundation announced that its prize for achievement in African leadership would not be awarded. “The challenge is really for people to meet that standard,” Ibrahim told Foreign Policy in an exclusive interview. “We are not going to lower our standards just to be cheerleaders for Africa.”

Ibrahim spoke with FP about the purpose of the award, the challenge of finding recipients, and the next generation of leadership in Africa. He also shared his thoughts on President Barack Obama’s policies in Africa (Spoiler: he thinks President George W. Bush did a better job) and on the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to the European Union. “I think it was a very good choice to support the European Union,” he said, “because let’s not forget, those Europeans caused more wars than anybody in the world.”


Foreign Policy:  Can you tell us a little bit about the Mo Ibrahim Prize for Achievement in African Leadership, how it came about, and what you aimed to achieve with it?

Mo Ibrahim: Our solution is focused on the issues of governance and leadership in Africa. We believe that if Africa is to move forward, we need to look hard at the way we govern ourselves and also we need to look at the quality of our leadership. We will need both to move the continent forward. That’s crucial. There is no other way. Nobody can come and develop Africa on behalf of Africans. Foreign aid and advice from well-wishers or good people will not be sufficient. What is needed is for us to do the hard work.

We also need to look at our leadership. And the best way we thought to do that was to try to look for African heroes, people who came to power democratically, governed well, made hard decisions, moved people out of poverty, changed the course of their country, and then when the time came, ensured a peaceful transition of power. Those are the people we need to have in Africa if we are going to fulfill our potential. And that was the purpose of this prize: to identify those people and put them up as role models — and also to let the world know that in addition to the well known dictators, there are people doing good work in Africa, and in many cases they are not well known.

The money attached to the prize is to enable these leaders to have a life and mission after office. Our leaders in Africa have nowhere to go after they leave office. They don’t have mega-dollar deals on books and memoirs, which leaders in developed countries have. We want to enable those leaders to establish their own foundations and continue to pursue the public interest. Read More