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And the winner is . . . nobody

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When Festus Mogae retired last year, he was given 200 chickens, 117 cows, nine horses, four donkeys, four ostriches, two pigs and two dogs. Oh, and £3m. The former president of Botswana won the world's biggest prize, funded by Sudanese telecoms-tycoon-turned-philanthropist Mo Ibrahim, for being what has for far too long been far too rare: a good African leader.

It is a pretty pension for a man who would otherwise be living on a monthly state salary of £2,500. "I'm going to be able to build myself a nice house in my village now," Mogae told me at a meeting of the Mo Ibrahim Foundation in Tanzania on 14 November. "But I have to look after my health - I only get it all if I live for ten years."

In Mogae's opinion, the prize some accuse of bribing leaders to do their jobs is a positive encouragement to Africa's leaders to behave better. For him, the award, given to a former African leader who has left office, is akin to a Nobel Prize: a recognition of effort, as well as a financial reward. "Some presidents do well for their country, but then they stay on and on and on and then the trouble comes," he says. "We don't need strong men; we need strong institutions."

Mogae says Uganda's Yoweri Museveni - 23 years at the helm and counting - is among the old crop of leaders who should step down before things go sour.

This year the Foundation hasn't awarded a prize and hasn't said why. Gossip abounds that Ibrahim, who disdains lavish pleasures such as champagne and caviar in favour of espresso and a pipe, has run out of cash. The judges, headed by the former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, ventured only that there were credible candidates but no prize was given.

As post-war countries such as Sierra Leone and Liberia rebuild, tackle corruption and attract investment, coups in Guinea, Madagascar and Guinea-Bissau have underlined the continent's fragility. "We are poor, we are hungry, we are going without. Something is drastically wrong.
I think we have the right to ask our leaders, are they really serious?" says Ibrahim.

That £3m has a bit more encouraging to do yet.

 

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This article appears in the 23 November 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Green Heroes and Villains