Quitting for Democracy

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This guy might be on to something.

Mo Ibrahim is a billionaire from Sudan (he has British nationality but was born as a Sudanese Nubian). He made his fortune by founding the cell phone company Celtel, which markets primarily in sub-Saharan Africa. Vanguard has some good background information.

When I was in South Africa & Zambia in 2004, I was shocked by the proliferation of cell phones. It seemed most of the people I met–rich and poor–knew more about cell phones and SMS-ing (text-messaging) than I did at that point. Well, more so in South Africa than in Zambia. In Mr. Ibrahim’s words, cell phones are better than computers for most Africans because they’re less expensive and you don’t need constant electricity. Many areas that have never seen landlines now have cellular coverage.

Mo Ibrahim sold Celtel to Kuwaiti telecom giant MTC $3.4 billion in 2005. And what’s he going to do with his money?

Yesterday The Guardian published a story on Ibrahim’s plan to offer a $5 million prize for African governance. Basically, each year a committee will select a democratic leader who has fought corruption and encouraged accountability, and pay them to quit.

Many African countries have transitioned to democracy since decolonization, while others are still mired in military dicatorships. But many governments that are democratic in name are anything but democratic in spirit, largely because grass-roots power and accountability don’t simply blossom overnight after hundreds of years of subjugation. One of the most impressive things about America’s government to me is that despite the massive power at stake, we’ve responded relatively peacefully to transitions in leadership for centuries, discounting the Civil War, of course. Well, at least for decades…

Many African presidents, while elected in some way, find ways to extend their power and crush the opposition. Egypt’s Mubarak and Zimbabwe’s Mugabe come to mind, and Uganda’s Museveni and South Africa’s Mbeki could be headed that way.

Ibrahim says that giving rulers motivation to step down and turn over the reins to their successor is vital for democracy, a fourth option besides “relative poverty, term extension, or corruption”. Meanwhile, Transparency International derided the prize as a reinforcement for African “strong men”.

I think the prize could have positive effects, depending on who it’s given too. But by itself it won’t be nearly enough to stem the tide of corruption on all levels of African government. Transparency International is correct in seeing the prize as incomplete solution to a multifaceted problem, but getting popular leaders to quit sure seems like a worthy goal to me.

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