A new film called Africa Straight Up (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qKUVfcXB14w) highlights Africa’s current economic rise, which has attracted a lot of well-deserved attention. Those of us who take heart from the continent’s economic ferment might overlook the fact that this past week, for the third time in four years, the Mo Ibrahim Foundation announced that it had found nobody worthy of receiving its five-million-dollar prize for achievement in African leadership.
Without political leaders who satisfy the criteria for the prize—demonstrating exceptional leadership, serving out their constitutionally mandated terms, and retiring when they are supposed to—the spread to poor rural areas of benefits from the kind of innovation that drives the ongoing economic boom is likely to be slowed to an excruciating crawl, if not blocked altogether.
Why does the Mo Ibrahim Foundation have such a hard time giving its money away? Last year the Nigeria-born blogger Mfonobong Nsehe asked “in all sincerity, what appeal does [the African Leadership Prize’s] $5 million really hold for a typical African leader who controls billions of dollars of a country’s resources?” (http://www.forbes.com/sites/mfonobongnsehe/2011/10/10/the-billionaire-whos-squandering-his-wealth-on-african-leaders/).
In the wake of the most recent withholding of the African Leadership Prize, Harvard’s Kenya-born Professor of the Practice of International Development, Calestous Juma, suggests that “the road to democracy is being bridged by a rising technocracy” (http://www.forbes.com/sites/mfonobongnsehe/2012/10/15/africas-leadership-fails-billionaire-mo-ibrahims-test-but-technocrats-rise/). Dr. Juma argues that coordinating “new major infrastructure projects,” including “the rehabilitation of rural railway networks,” will “need to be supported at the highest level in government by science and technology advisors to presidents and prime ministers at par with economic advisors.” He also points out that in 2012, “Angola, Egypt, Ethiopia, Senegal, Tunisia and Somalia elected engineers to top political offices” and that “Eritrea and Nigeria are headed by an engineer and a fisheries scientist, respectively.”
But capable science and technology advisors, as much as highly educated economic advisors, are surely vulnerable to the enticements to corruption that African government positions continue to offer. In rural Tanzania, I hear plenty of complaints about the government. These are echoed by a growing number of claims from all over Africa—given prominent mention in Africa Straight Up—that the continent’s ordinary citizens have had enough of government corruption.
I only hope that such claims do not represent wishful thinking. If they don’t, Africa will have the catalyst it needs to justify optimism about its future.