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The ordeal of selecting exemplary Africans

Friday December 25 2009

Former Ghana President John Kufuor.
Former Ghana President John Kufuor.
Former president of Nigeria Olusegun Obasanjo.
Former president of Nigeria Olusegun Obasanjo.
Fomer South African President Thabo Mbeki
Fomer South African President Thabo Mbeki

On November 6, 2009 a committee chaired by Salim Ahmed Salim, former Secretary-General of the Organisation of African Unity, met at the Windsor Golf Club Hotel on the outskirts of Nairobi, to select “The African of The Year 2009”.

Other members of the Advisory Committee include Prof Abdoulaye Bathily, Historian and Politician from Senegal; Prof Kwame Karikari, Media Specialist and Activist from Ghana; Prof Tandeka Nkiwane from South Africa; Muthoni Wanyeki, Executive Director, Kenya Human Rights Commission.

The committee members also include Kabiru Yusuf, chairman of Media Trust Limited; Dr Obadiah Mailafia, former deputy-governor, Central Bank of Nigeria; and Prof Okello Oculi, political scientist.

The project is owned and funded by the Daily Trust newspaper which is published out of  Abuja, Nigeria’s capital. It was first awarded in 2008 with Denis Mukwege, a medical doctor who conducts hundreds of surgeries on women victims of violent rape across eastern Congo.

Christiana Thorpe, nicknamed “Iron Lady” by her admirers in her native Sierra Leone, was a runner-up for her courage in conducting an election that was won by the opposition despite enormous pressures by the ruling party to rig it. The other runner-up was the world renowned Malian musician, Salif Keita, for singing in defence of the human rights of albinos all across Africa.

The 2009 newspaper’s selection event was preceded by a decision by the Mo Ibrahim Foundation not to award The Africa Leadership Prize 2009. Instead, its anointing committee chaired by former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan threw cold mud into faces of three African presidents that had left office. John Kufuor of Ghana had left office after conducting an election in which his ruling party lost control of both the presidency and its majority in parliament.


Olusegun Obasanjo had left power after dragging his party, the Peoples Democratic Party and the Nigerian electorate, hollering and bruised into electing an unknown pair of Umaru Yar’Adua as president, from Katsina State in Nigeria’s Muslim north, and  Goodluck Jonathan (Vice President) from a bleeding and gun-waving Niger Delta state of Bayelsa.

The unlucky three

Thabo Mbeki from South Africa carried into exit the rare legacy of being deposed from the presidency while still at breakfast table as his police and other familiar trappings of power stood limp and advisedly blind. The Mo Ibrahim committee’s research hounds must have piled up heaps of historical data through which to walk and ponder over who deserved to haul away its rich prize of $5 million (Sh35 million).

At the meeting to name the African of the Year 2009, Salim Salim, who is also a member of that team of wise and hawk-eyed men and women, would not be drawn into discussing the factors that weighed against the unlucky three. That silence hung around the room like a policeman sleeping with one ear open; waiting to pounce on loss of virtue in the choice of a winner. The nominees presented with their video images included a musician (Baaba Maal from Senegal); two bankers (Donald Kaberuka of the African Development Bank who hails from Rwanda, and Sanusi Lamido Sanusi, Nigeria’s Governor of the Central Bank);two guardians of free and fair elections (Dr Brigalia Bam, Chair of South Africa’s Independent Electoral Commission, and Dr Kwado Afari-Gyan, of Ghana’s Electoral Commission); a wielder of the camera as a weapon of truth (Sorious Samura from Sierra Leone) and Kenya’s Justice Philip Waki whose report on the country’s post-election violence in 2008 might land big games at the Hague.

There was also Juliana Rotich from Kenya who has used the internet for mobilizing public opinion around crimes against the environment. Builder of hope in over 10,000 young girls through animating their production of creative goods for export to rich European markets, Viola Vaught from Kaolack in Senegal, was also a contender as was a transferor of technology from his participation in America’s space exploration missions to the development of solar energy in Mali, Dr Cheik ModiboDiara.

Hard-headed defender of women’s rights to dress without feeling terrorised and oppressed by self-appointed male guardians of sexual titillations (Lubna Ahmed-al-Hussein from Sudan) couldn’t be ignored; South Africa’s athlete Caster Semenya too. Taking the diversity of opinion across Africa into consideration, the Mo Ibrahim Foundation committee expected the nominees to get raw eggs thrown into their faces. Kaberuka, for example, can be praised for promising safe drinking water to as many as 66 per cent of Africa’s rural population by 2010; but he may also be accused of running a bank which  capitalists from Scandinavian countries, Japan, the United States, Canada and the European Union have, in the last three decades, wittingly eaten away Africa’s ownership out of.

The Nigerian Trust Fund (that gave loans to African countries that were so poor or/and highly in debt that the World Bank regarded them as not worth throwing money to), has been strangled and tossed out of the ADB. Africa has probably already lost what was conceived of as a development-fuelling economic pot to draw from on a communal basis.

The focus of the bank under Kaberuka to water Africa is a far cry from the urgent need to support industrial take-off all across Africa — industrial productivity and genius remain the engines of economic growth. Those would be big eggs to throw at Kaberuka. The two guardians of free and fair elections as well as the musician faced the risk of having tongues wagging because their kind had, elsewhere, ran away with two booties in 2008. Female nominees were likely to suffer from the “PhD” (or ‘pull her down’) instincts of chauvinistic males and females.

Zimbabwe Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangerai (in whom a nominator saw statesmanship) was better approached cautiously. Such actors on the African stage may, on the same day, be saints at dawn and blood-drenched villains by sunset. A giver of medals of honour to that species would live to reap a harvest of shame and future public distrust of her or his judgments.

Nigeria’s President, Umaru Yar’Adua  deserves credit for making peace with those in his country’s oil-rich but poverty- gripped Niger Delta who turned to armed dialogue as a strategy for winning bigger shares of the monies earned from  marketing oil, dug from under their soils and water bodies, in the international market.

Fears of these Niger Delta militants being lured back into more violence by groups who make less money from peace, as well as the owners of the project being tainted by suspicion of courting lucrative contracts from the Nigerian government, were likely to come into play. The resort to caution was informed by wisdom. There maybe, however, the temptation to mistake bad judgment for enlightened craftiness.

For the Mo Ibrahim Prize, Thabo Mbeki may have been muddied simply because of fear of brutal criticism and a cacophony of protests by the HIV/Aids lobby. His merits of effectively using trained intelligence to run governance and his subsequent act of giving priority to the will of the ANC — which he knew had formed and honoured him with power from under the shadows of the great Nelson Mandela — are lost sight of.
The possibility that Olusegun Obasanjo may have acquiesced to demands by Nigeria’s  military brass to effect a strategy of installing a Vice President from the Niger Delta region to appease it may have been left in the cold. Angry voices protesting what was seen as Obasanjo’s political thuggery in the implementation of this plot, had their valid claims but must not be allowed to choke prospects for clearer historical vision.

It is worth testifying that all those I have talked to in Nairobi about the African of the Year project have vigorously welcomed the initiative to highlight and celebrate jewels of creativity, work  and vision by peoples of Africa. Its primary focus at pointing to roses blooming out of those often faraway from and invisible to governments in Africa, arouses enthusiasm.

Eyeballs dilate with an awakening  from an unsuspected personal slumber. The project may well have touched the contours of a mission  that will roll back winds of gloom, doubt and pessimism about our role in building history in the new millennium.

Africa Insight is an initiative of the Nation Media Group’s Africa Media Network Project.