The Mo Ibrahim Foundation on early Monday, Feb. 12, 2018, announced former President of Liberia, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, as its 2017 winner of the Mo Ibrahim Prize, which comes with a whopping cash reward of US$5Million. The foundation, according to a statement on its website, said the decision to award the prize to the former President came following a meeting of its independent Prize Committee.
“The Mo Ibrahim Prize for Achievement in African Leadership has been awarded to Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, former President of Liberia, today [Monday February 12, 2018] following a meeting of its independent Prize Committee,” the statement said.
Sirleaf is the fifth recipient of the Prize, which recognizes and celebrates “excellence in African leadership.” The Mo Ibrahim Prize aims to distinguish leaders who, during their time in office, have developed their countries, strengthened democracy, and human rights for the shared benefit of their people, and advanced sustainable development.
Many Liberians, however, have different views about the 12-year rule of Madame Sirleaf, who they believe was given much but had little to show for her stewardship. With all the euphoria that greeted her ascendancy as a Harvard trained economist and an experienced global public servant, she has over the years been criticized for doing little to improve the lives of Liberians, fight against corruption, and ensure good governance.
But with this latest award, which comes with a US$5M purse payable over ten years and subsequently US$200,000 annually for life, it would seem no major global award has eluded the country’s 23rd President.
After he learned of Madame Sirleaf winning the award, outspoken Liberian economist Samuel P. Jackson posted on his social media page, “A rare person who has won all of the global awards including the Mo Ibrahim prize of 5 million dollars and yet remains so unpopular in her own country.”
He said, “She ran the most corrupt government in the country’s history. She left the country bankrupt. Financial system teetering on the brink. No economic growth. Poverty among 84 percent of the population. Destroyed her political party.”
He added, “We just have to bite our lips and accept it. We have no power over what foreigners decide for us.”
However, the Prize Committee praised Sirleaf for her “exceptional and transformative leadership, in the face of unprecedented and renewed challenges, to lead Liberia’s recovery following many years of devastating civil war.”
Dr Salim Ahmed Salim, Chair of the Prize Committee, said Madame Sirleaf became president when the country was completely destroyed by civil war and led a process of reconciliation that focused on building a nation and its democratic institutions—nevertheless, in her last state of the nation address, Madame Sirleaf admitted that she failed to reconcile the country and did little to win the war against corruption.
The Prize committee, though, said throughout her two terms in office, she worked tirelessly on behalf of the people of Liberia.
Liberia was the only country out of 54 to improve in every category and sub-category of the Ibrahim Index of African Governance. This led Liberia to move up ten places in the Index’s overall ranking during this period.
Policy analyst and researcher at the Governance Commission (GC), Ibrahim Al-bakri Nyei, said Madame Sirleaf did very little to improve the governance of Liberia.
He said power is and has been heavily centralized in Liberia; the presidency has sweeping powers under the Constitution to appoint nearly 3,000 officials including city mayors and district commissioners; and the office even has the right to remove elected chiefs, if there was any cause.
This excessive concentration of authority, Nyei said, has enabled the formation of imperial-like presidencies, which Madame Sirleaf did little, if nothing, to change during her 12-year reign.
“Her regime reinforced power relations that make people mere recipients of government largesse rather than active citizens—contributing to the marginalization of peripheral counties and gross underdevelopment,” Nyei, who is also an activist and political analyst, said in an article titled, “The best thing George Weah can do with his new powers is give some away.” The article was published on the African Arguments website.
Madame Sirleaf, in her maiden inaugural address, pledged to change all of these and to bring “the government closer to the people”.
But Nyei noted, “Once in office, she continued to appoint officials such as mayors and commissioners, while decision-making and resource allocation remained the prerogative of central bureaucrats. Besides some half-hearted programs conducted through County Service Centers, there was little meaningful reform.”
“Twelve years later, Sirleaf essentially left the office as she found it,” Nyei, who is currently a PhD candidate at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, noted.
The award’s benefactor, Mo Ibrahim, expressed delight that the Prize Committee decided on the former Liberian president.
“In very difficult circumstances, she helped guide her nation towards a peaceful and democratic future, paving the way for her successor to follow. I am proud to see the first woman Ibrahim Laureate, and I hope Ellen Johnson Sirleaf will continue to inspire women in Africa and beyond,” a statement quoted him as saying.
However, question as to whether African leaders need US$5 million as an incentive to govern well still lingers.
Some say the prize is Mo Ibrahim’s way of ensuring that transfer of power happens on the continent, which mostly does not happen because African leaders are not given the same economic opportunities and other leverages as Western leaders, though this argument is being hugely countered.
“This makes me think maybe Ibrahim needs to rethink the Prize’s purpose or mission because $5M could very well be used to improve the lives of the people those past leaders failed to emancipate from the dreadful hands of poverty. Use that money to help the poor instead of enriching these already corrupt officials more,” a top government official told the Observer yesterday.
Some say the award seems to fall short of some of its standards and ideals, and the criteria for the award are unbending on raising the standards of living of the people governed.
As its standards, this award is given to a democratically-elected leader who has governed according to the rule of law, raised living standards and served a mandated term before voluntarily leaving.
Others wonder whether the Prize is nothing more than a bribe to leave office.
A top former governing party officer said the Mo Ibrahim committee has long yearned to give the award to a woman and as a result they did not follow their rules or consider the high level of misrule under the Sirleaf Administration, corruption, a patronage system, nepotism, and other negative vices.
“Not a single corruption case was ever prosecuted under this woman. What kind of governance is that? The president targeted those that spoke the truth, fired people she did not like, wasted the country’s money on NOCAL, Sable Mining case and many more.”
Meanwhile Madame Sirleaf joins Hifikepunye Pohamba of Namibia (2014), Pedro Pires of Cabo Verde (2011), Festus Mogae of Botswana (2008), and Joaquim Chissano of Mozambique (2007) as an Ibrahim Prize Laureate.
Nelson Mandela was made the inaugural Honorary Laureate in 2007.