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By Global Public Square staff
The world has welcomed another batch of Nobel Laureates for accomplishments in the sciences, literature, and global peace. But there is another prize, perhaps just as important, for which there was no winner.
We are talking about the Mo Ibrahim Prize, established by the Sudanese billionaire Mo Ibrahim. The criteria for winning are listed publicly on the prize website: You need to be a democratically elected African head of state that has left office in the last three years, and demonstrated excellent leadership. If you meet the criteria, you get a $5 million award, plus an annual pension of $200,000 that kicks in after a decade.
The point, of course, is to provide a financial incentive for African leaders to shun corruption. And yet, for the fourth time in its seven year history, the awards committee was unable to find a winner from any of Africa's 50-plus countries. Bravo to the Ibrahim prize for holding high standards, even if that means no grand ceremony.
So what happened? Well, for starters, presidents and prime ministers need to actually step down. Africa's leaders are locked in a marathon to see who can reign longest. The leaders of Equatorial Guinea and Angola have been in power for 34 years. Zimbabwe and Cameroon have had the same men in charge for 33 and 30 years respectively. These and a number of other African states are nominal democracies, but they are essentially run by dictators. Elections, if they're held at all, tend to be a sham, pockmarked by intimidation, fraud, and violence.
A number of indicators highlight the region's crisis of governance. On Freedom House's global map of freedom, Africa is the region with the highest number of countries listed “not free.” On Transparency International's Corruption Index, most African states are shaded red, denoting graft, instead of yellow, for least corrupt.
Now alongside all of these dismal rankings lie a set of numbers singing a very different tune. Six of the world's ten fastest growing economies from 2001 to 2010 were African. According to Ventures Africa, the continent now has 55 billionaires. Great strides have been made in creating wealth and expanding development. There have been advances in education, healthcare, and poverty alleviation.
So, despite all of these gains, why is Africa so far behind on good governance?
There are, of course, a number of decades-old factors in play, but one of them is new, and strikes us as an interesting one to highlight: China.
For decades, NGO’s and Western countries have tied aid money and trade to promises for greater transparency among Africa’s countries. But China has upended the system. Beijing is known to give aid and sign trade deals with no strings attached. Instead, its priority is to extract commodities at the best possible price. And that, in turn, has led to the commodities boom which has fuelled growth in Africa.
According to a New York University study, trade between China and Africa has risen from $10 billion in 2000 to $166 billion in 2011, a 16-fold increase. China is now Africa's largest trade partner. And as we reported last week, China's total aid budget has surged as well, from $1.7 billion in 2001, to more than $189 billion in 2011. A substantial chunk of that aide goes to Africa.
In the short term, Africa's leaders may rejoice at having struck a good deal. They no longer need to listen to Western criticism because China and other countries, like Brazil and India, are willing to trade, no-strings attached.
But Africa's dictators should beware. All they need to do is look north, to the Arab world, and they will see what happens when leaders suppress freedom and stick around too long. Meanwhile, Africa's young population – and it is huge – is getting smarter, more connected, and perhaps more likely, eventually, to rebel against repression.