Mo Ibrahim of the Sudan and his grand Prize for Good Governance in Africa

Okello Oculi


The Sudan that Mo Ibrahim knew came into independence on January 1, 1956 waving the visionary horizon of being the bridge between Black Africa and Arab Africa. From its northern border with Egypt to its southern border with Uganda it hosted the River Nile and its mission of robbing rich soils from the highlands of Ethiopia and East Africa and hauling it to fertilise and support crop-growing agriculture in Egypt.

Sudan entered independence partly propelled by the cheeky British game of playing a group of elites educated in Khartoum University and passionately committed to a Sudanese independence, against those nurtured by Egypt to see themselves as loyal to Islamic Arab brotherhood of Egypt and the Middle East. Both groups failed to notice the volcano simmering between them and communities in the south.

Following a series of military coups and  a 30-year civil war, the vision of Sudan as the bridge between two racial-religious divide along Africa’s spinal cord collapsed into a primitive cutting off of limbs of  southerners living in the Khartoum-Omdurman areas in the drive to impose a Sharia- based polity. As Mahmud Mamdani has argued, elites from three clans in Khartoum-Omdurman urban axis dragged Sudan into breaking apart in their determination to hold on to their monopoly of power against claims by excluded elites from Darfur in the west; Nubians on the Egyptian border; groups in the Port Said area in the northeast and the Dinka, Nuer and Azande in the South.

When in 2006/2007 Mo Ibrahim established his Foundation, he must have been bitterly disappointed by the destructive effects of the plague of this brand of bad governance in his native country. Other territorial or population giants on the continent had taken turns in bleeding. Patrice Lumumba’s Congo had exploded after 30 days of freedom. Tafawa Balewa’s Nigeria had drowned her self-rule in a blood lake from a civil war. A cancelled 1992 general election by politicians who had appealed to Islamic values to critique the betrayal of social justice promised by a war of national liberation victory had led to an Algerian fratricidal war. In highly industrialised South Africa, the idiocy of race-based apartheid governance had led to a disaster which lit warfare in Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Angola, Namibia and South Africa itself. Bad governance had also won the robes of corruption and economic treason worn by Africa’s educated classes. To Mo Ibrahim the monster had to be fought and not wept over.

Mo Ibrahim chose a ploy that would jolt imagination, namely: dangle a reward of 5 million US dollars to any African leader who would be crowned ‘’His/Her Excellency Mr. Good Governance’’. It was a sum smaller than the 4 billion dollars Mobutu Sese Seko of Zaire (now Congo DR) is said to have hidden in his Swiss bank accounts. It still drew alarms. Some critics accused Mo Ibrahim of waving a scandalous bribe. Some said congenital greed would find it too little to deter sinners. The point is that its bell had tolled out loud and clear around the neck of the cat called ‘’Bad Governance’’.

 Mo Ibrahim Foundation’s main weapon is a massive annual research and analysis of conditions in each African country, and  critical review of  performances of governments along four main areas, namely:  promoting or not promoting equity among citizens; travelling the road to development in a sustainable way; the way a government is creating wealth in the hands of the masses of the people and ensuring access to health care and quality education; the way a governments provides security from domestic violence, ensures police respect for the human rights and dignity of citizens; and ensure that that citizens take part in electing their rulers and interrogating the performance of their rulers.

All this ambition requires a massive capacity for research; comparing, and analysing data from 54 African countries. This effort is more than the low research skills in most of Africa’s universities can cope with.  Mo Ibrahim Foundation gets data from 32 ‘’independent external sources’’. One collaborator, the Global Integrity Trust, ‘’maintains a network of experts in every African country to provide assessments of key social, economic and political indicators’’.

Here is an African-owned agency that is competing with the likes of Britain’s tools like the Economist Intelligence Unit or Africa Confidential  or the Financial Times and the imperial behemoth - the BBC. This is big-time stuff. The Ibrahim Index of African Governance is clearly very serious business.

The Mo Ibrahim Foundation’s investigative work does not engage civil society in each country (including media and public intellectuals and the business sector) in the same way as the African Union’s Peer Review Mechanism process does. Yet it has special merit in its annual call and mission to review every African country. The problem may well be that the size of the prize awaiting deserving pockets distracts attention from its massive research effort.

The prize is, after all, limited to the extremely few Africans who are heads of state; have left government within the last three years; were elected in free and fair democratic elections; left office without killing, weeping and trying to change the constitution to enable them stay longer in power, and like a Pharaoh, his or her heart is lighter than a feather when weighed on the scale of virtuous governance.

One little virtue in the prize is the 200,000 dollars paid out annually to winners for them to use in doing philanthropic work. It fuels the flow of the political skills of those no longer expected to be throwing their weight inside their own country, and to export it to other parts of Africa. The good elder remains available to educate all children in Village Africana.