The 2017 Mo Ibrahim Prize for Achievement in African Leadership, after two consecutive years in which no worthy winner could be found, went to former Liberian President, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. It is heart-warming that the Mo Ibrahim Foundation found her worthy of this great honour which is Africa’s equivalent of the Nobel Prize. As the Foundation put it “…confronted with unprecedented and renewed challenges, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf demonstrated exceptional and transformative leadership…Today (she) stands tall in victory.”
Mrs. Johnson Sirleaf has thus joined a small exclusive club of five distinguished African leaders who have been honoured by the Mo Ibrahim Foundation, including Nelson Mandela, the inaugural honorary laureate; President Joaquim Chissano of Mozambique (2007); President Festus Mogae of Botswana (2008); President Pedro Pires of Cape Verde (2011) and President Hifikepunye Pohamba of Namibia (2014). Sirleaf thus becomes one of the world’s most decorated stateswomen, having also shared the Nobel Prize for Peace with her compatriot, Ms. Leymah Gbowee, in 2011.
In spite of a few murmurs, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf’s accomplishments are incontestable. Liberians will never forget her for keeping the peace after 14 years of war in which barbaric extremities, child soldiers, drugs and war crimes had become part and parcel of Liberia’s existence. In the process, the poor country’s infrastructure was leveled to the ground. She assumed office as president of a prostrate nation with no hospitals, schools, roads; even lamp-posts had been destroyed. She performed the feat of erasing $5 billion debilitating foreign debt within her first three years, thereby clearing the coast for foreign investors and boosting the prospects of economic development.
Mrs. Johnson Sirleaf came to power in 2005, and since 2006, Liberia is the only one of 54 African countries to have improved in every category and sub-category of the Ibrahim Index of African Governance (IIAG). The index is an annual assessment of more than 100 variables on the quality of governance from more than 30 African and global institutions. It is also an assessment of service delivery and policy outcomes across the continent. It serves as a tool to determine and debate government performance. From 2006 to 2014, before the Ebola crisis, the Liberian economy grew at an average annual rate of over seven per cent. As a person, Mrs. Johnson Sirleaf endured imprisonment, exile and other personal risks on her way to leadership. She embraced opponents with courage and fought for generational change which paved the way for her successor to follow. Her achievements have inspired and given confidence to millions of women in Africa and the world.
The Mo Ibrahim Foundation made a good choice. This distinguished lady has paid her dues in integrity, self-confidence and the ability to inspire others. Her commitment, passion and excellent communication are qualities that are in short supply on the continent. The result has been high incidence of corruption, vote-buying to stay in power and incompetence.
Africa is much obliged to the Mo Ibrahim Foundation for the Leadership Prize. It has once more demonstrated the invaluable legacy of the founder who is a Sudanese telecommunication entrepreneur. His effort to pay back to Africa through the Foundation is laudable. It is noteworthy that part of the considerations for winning the prize is the manner of the leader’s accession to power, and his or her manner of quitting the stage. Mrs. Johnson Sirleaf did not try to amend the constitution to elongate her tenure. She quit while the ovation was loudest. She created and maintained a level playing field for the candidates jostling to succeed her. It is remarkable that her successor did not come from her own political party and that, as a matter of fact, her political party expelled her on the dubious charge that she did not support her party strongly enough during the election. She is a hero of democratic government in Africa.
We congratulate Mrs. Johnson Sirleaf on winning the more than $5 million prize. This money should cushion her post-presidency life and avail her the means to continue her great service to Africa.