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Southern African Leaders Dominate in Leadership Prize

FILE - Mo Ibrahim a speaks to the media during the announcement of the recipient of The Ibrahim Prize for Achievement in African Leadership in London, October 2008.

The Southern African nations of Botswana, Mozambique and Namibia are three of the four recipients of the top award for African governance. The region has had its fair share of revolutions and crises, but is consistently ranked high in indices of good governance, and has managed to move ahead despite its challenges.

The winners of the multi-million-dollar Mo Ibrahim Foundation African leadership prize are Namibia’s soon-to-depart President Hifikepunye Pohamba, Mozambique President Joaquim Chissano and Botswana President Festus Mogae. The only other winner has come from the tiny, remote West African island nation of Cape Verde.

The committee credited Pohamba for fostering a “well-governed, stable and inclusive democracy with strong media freedom and respect for human rights” in his nation of some 2 million people. Pohamba is leaving office this year, after his second and final term. One of the award’s criteria is that the recipient must have voluntarily left office after respecting constitutional term limits.

Committee member Graca Machel -- herself a native of Mozambique and the twice-married widow of two Southern African former heads of state -- said Monday the committee does not play favorites. As proof, she pointed to former Cape Verde president Pedro Pires, who was the last recipient in 2011. The committee says no one has merited the prize since then.

“There is a spread of looking at the continent and finding across the continent leaders who deserve the prize. It is a simple coincidence that it’s the the three of them, now there are three who have come from Southern Africa," said Machel.

"But believe me, I would like you to be very very clear that we analyze every single case regardless of the region, regardless of whether it’s a French or English speaking, whether it’s Portuguese speaking. The criteria are quite quite rigorous and they are applied to everyone,” said Machel.

Analyst Glen Mpani, who is democracy and governance program manager at the Open Society Initiative of Southern Africa, said the region benefits from the strong guidance of the Southern African Development Community. But he said that although Southern Africa has a good track record, it could do better.

“I think one of the things we need to appreciate is that of all the regions, SADC generally has some semblance of stability. SADC has also managed in essence to avoid outright conflict where there is war, they have tried as much as possible to maintain that," said Mpani.

"But it does not mean that the quality of democracy is okay. I think that if you look at West Africa, although they have got challenges, they have built institutions that are able to deal with much bigger challenges,” he said.

But Lesotho’s prime minister, Thomas Thabane, told VOA News that Southern Africa’s political climate is serious about democracy. He is slated to win Lesotho’s poll.

“If I lose, I will congratulate them. If I win, I expect them to congratulate me. Simple. And that is the norm. We are part of an area in Africa where that is now the norm. … we cannot have a country run on wrong," said Thabane.

The Mo Ibrahim committee acknowledged that there are not many suitable candidates for the prize. The recipient must be a former head of state who was democratically elected, has left office voluntarily in the last three years after respecting term limits, and who has demonstrated exceptional leadership.

More than a few African leaders -- like Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe and Angola’s Jose Eduardo dos Santos -- have served for several decades and have been accused of rigging polls, for leading with an iron fist, and for multiple human rights violations.

But when asked to list Pohamba’s virtues, Mpani was among the analysts VOA News spoke to who offered little more than faint praise.

“One of the key features of Pohamba’s tenure was he is one leader who was never found on a confrontational path, or in a way trying to erode those gains," said Mpani.

"More so, when his time of leaving had come, in terms of him departing, he was never found on the path where we was resisting. So in that sense, he doesn’t have anything on his leadership or on his personality that in essence can discredit him from being awarded that,” he said.

The prize actually has been awarded one more time, honorarily, to yet another Southern African. It went to a man who is universally hailed as a model for leadership, though, even beyond this continent: South Africa’s Nelson Mandela.