African prizes

It would be difficult to conceive a more ludicrous idea (and luminaries such as Nelson Mandela, Kofi Annan and Mary Robinson really should know better). The “self-made” cellphone billionaire Mo Ibrahim has started to hand out his eponymous self-congratulatory award (the “Mo Ibrahim Award for Achievement in African Leadership”). He should know: Celtel made him a fortune in 15 African countries not renowned for regulatory oversight, in an industry characterised by high initial capital and thereafter low marginal costs. Now Former Mozambican President Joaquim Chissano, the first winner, is probably a good guy, but he and any other winners could reflect on the words of Chinua Achebe:

A leader’s no-nonsense reputation might induce a favorable climate but in order to effect lasting change, it must be followed up with a radical program of social and economic reorganization” [The Trouble with Nigeria (1984)].

Development agencies regularly make the mistake of relying on ‘agents of change’ and then wonder why nothing really changed. African voters hope for the best – and often accept that there limits on social change imposed by democratic politics and institutions – but nonetheless and in plain words, good leaders are good, but strong institutions are even better. These include viable tax systems – not least in forestry – to pay for essential social services and tax justice in a globalised world.

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