John Hoffmire: Celebrating leadership and transforming governance in Africa

Published: Tuesday, Jan. 21 2014 12:00 a.m. MST

Of course it would be foolhardy to confuse the prize as putting a price on good leadership. The symbolic intent of the prize in drawing attention and eliciting responses of the people can be instrumental in demanding enduring and consistent responses from the leaders. As Mo Ibrahim’s daughter, Hadeel, who is also the founding executive director of the Mo Ibrahim Foundation, says, “People respond partly to the notion of the prize, but also to Mo Ibrahim as someone who will get things done … and it is only fitting that he gives a prize for excellence, because he is consumed by the desire for excellence in all he does."

However, there is a dearth of inspired leadership on the African continent, and this was manifested in the damning conclusion of the Mo Ibrahim Foundation Prize Committee when it, for 2013, declared that after reviewing a number of eligible candidates, “… none met the criteria needed to win this award.” Rather than diluting the prize for the sake of hollow continuity, the foundation has always chosen not to award the prize when it has been unable to find a candidate fulfilling its exacting criteria.

This unflinching refusal to compromise signals a rare integrity and helps uphold the exalted determinants of excellence in leadership and governance. Further, this can also serve to focus public scrutiny on the glaring vacuity of leadership confronting our societies and invite our collective energies to advance the pursuit.

Increasingly, though, it is not the prize that is the main focus of the Mo Ibrahim Foundation's work but rather the Mo Ibrahim Index of African Governance, a comprehensive ranking of African countries according to governance quality. Hadeel Ibrahim stated that, "All of us in the foundation would now say the index is the most important aspect of what we do. Only one person can benefit from the prize, but 700 million Africans can engage with the index and benefit from it." The index is intended to stimulate debate about governance in Africa and was designed as a diagnostic tool to help civil societies, donors and governments monitor national progress. The overarching goal is to improve African governance and enhance the lives of Africans.

The index draws upon a database of almost 90,000 data points available for citizens, governments, institutions and businesses to comprehensively assess governance. The scale of the challenge is further compounded by the weakness of most national statistics offices in Africa. Inevitably, this creates some compromises and challenges that invite criticism.

The inescapable moral connotations in any such relative governance ranking fuel our argumentative instincts. However, Mo Ibrahim is not someone likely to be stiffened into inaction by the quicksand of human subjectivity. Also, the issues of governance are not merely a disinterested moral polemic for the Ibrahim Foundation but an "interested" involvement. Clearly, while there are areas of improvement in how the index is determined, it is crippling to wait for the elusive finality of theoretical constructs.

Irrespective of its shortcomings, the index, which ranks countries according to 58 criteria in five main categories, provides a substantive, overarching framework with regards to governance, creating subtle pressures on the governments to ensure continued legitimacy. Good governance is not limited only to “political governance” but refers to all processes of governing, irrespective of whether undertaken by the government, markets, civil society organizations or networks.

For the Ibrahim Foundation, the account of governance is not to be attached to reified concepts and limited to formal explanations. The foundation does not take governance to be some abstract, normative concept but as a concrete basket of deliverables of public goods and services that citizens have a justifiable right to expect.

The index currently aggregates more than 80 outcome-oriented indicators. A robust, data-driven analysis to calibrate progress against these parameters allows a constructive dialogue, verifiable assessment and possible advance. Accurate information allows citizens to become fully engaged in holding their leadership to account, to ensure action, to build support for bold decisions and to consolidate political legitimacy.

Admittedly, concrete advances in both governance and leadership can only happen when the transforming impulse emerges from the process of expressing deeply held values rather than by an outside imposition of distant barometers. However, it can only augur well for Africa when rather than being the handmaidens of hollow rhetoric and nepotism the exercise of governance and expression of leadership begin to manifest in consonance with sound tenets and ideals.

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