Almost everyone in the United States or indeed anywhere else in the world knows about Zimbabwe’s sit-tight president, Robert Mugabe. But who is Mogae? Who is Chissano? Who is Kikwete? And who is Kufuor? Sadly, very few people outside Africa recognize these names.

Festus Gontebanye Mogae is Botswana’s former president, and he is probably as little known as his country. Botswana, acclaimed as Africa’s brightest star, rose from the ashes of grinding poverty to middle-income status in a generation. Its elections are peaceful, its politicians retire voluntarily, its civil society is vibrant and its natural resources are not a curse but a blessing shared by all.

Mogae recently attracted meager attention when he won the Mo Ibrahim Prize for Achievement in African Leadership. The annual prize was established by the Mo Ibrahim Foundation and launched in October 2006 as an African initiative “to strengthen governance and affirm the importance of nurturing outstanding leaders on the continent.” The prize aims to encourage leaders like Mogae who dedicate their tenures of office to surmounting the development challenges of their countries, improve the livelihoods and welfare of their people and consolidate the foundation for sustainable development.

The Mo Ibrahim Prize is the world’s largest annually awarded prize. Mogae will receive $5 million over the next 10 years and $200,000 per year thereafter for the rest of his life. Over the coming decade, the foundation may also grant another $200,000 a year to causes of Mogae’s choice.

Even though Mogae is known to maintain a modest lifestyle, the windfall should come in handy for the Oxford-trained economist. According to the founder of the prize, Sudanese businessman Mo Ibrahim, “the fact that African leaders are able to steal billions of dollars doesn’t mean that those who don’t shouldn’t have any money.”

As The New York Times reported, Mogae was honored “for consolidating his nation’s democracy, ensuring that its diamond wealth enriched its people and providing bold leadership during his country’s AIDS pandemic.” Mogae scored his democracy pass mark by stepping down well ahead of the end of his second term as president and handing over power to his vice president, Ian Khama, in a smooth transition that stands out against the tango between Robert Mugabe and Morgan Tsvangirai in Zimbabwe, or between Mwai Kibaki and Raila Odinga in Kenya.

While the democratic landmark in Botswana went virtually unnoticed, however, blow-by-blow accounts of the democratic woes of Zimbabwe and the electoral debacle in Kenya made headlines around the world. The Mo Ibrahim Prize may have been designed to correct such skews. According to Ibrahim, “it is intended to turn the spotlight on men and women who contribute the most but receive far less attention than leaders like Zimbabwe’s president.”

As president of Botswana, Mogae also made a mark with his defense of civil liberties and the rule of law, as well as his anti-corruption and transparency measures. But by far his most enduring legacy is the progressive and comprehensive programs he put in place for dealing with Botswana’s galloping AIDS figures. Botswana has one of the world’s highest known rates of HIV/AIDS infection. Approximately one in six Batswana has HIV, giving Botswana the second-highest infection rate in the world after Swaziland. In 2006, it was estimated that life expectancy at birth in Botswana had dropped from 65 to 35 years due to AIDS.

His government took drastic measures to tackle the pandemic, such as free anti-retroviral drug treatment and a nationwide Prevention of Mother-to-Child Transmission program. Botswana became the first sub-Saharan African country where free anti-retroviral drugs are widely available. As a tribute to his astuteness in dealing with the crisis, anti-retrovirals are known in Botswana as “Mogae’s tablets.”

Mogae was selected for the Mo Ibrahim Prize by a six-member panel led by Kofi Annan, former secretary-general of the United Nations. The award committee paid glowing tribute to his anti-AIDS efforts: “President Mogae’s outstanding leadership has ensured Botswana’s continued stability and prosperity in the face of an HIV and AIDS pandemic which threatened the future of his country and his people.”

The panel based its judgment on the Ibrahim Index of African Governance, which ranks the quality of governance in sub-Saharan Africa based on economic and social development, peace and security, human rights, democracy and the rule of law. The index was developed under the direction of professor Robert Rotberg of the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. The Ibrahim Index aims to promote debate not just in Africa but around the world on the criteria by which governments should be assessed.

The panel also noted that Mogae’s economic management produced “remarkable growth, stymied inflation, attracted investment and allowed him to pursue diversification away from diamonds, while simultaneously using tax revenue to fund investment infrastructure, health and education.”

Botswana has been a leading light in African democracy. Formerly the British protectorate of Bechuanaland, Botswana adopted its new name when it gained independence in 1966. The country boasts four decades of uninterrupted civilian leadership. It has never had a coup and has had regular multiparty elections since independence.

Botswana also boasts one of the most dynamic economies in Africa. The country has maintained one of the world’s highest economic growth rates since independence, though growth slowed to about 5 percent annually in 2006-08. Mineral extraction, primarily diamond mining, dominates the economy. Botswana is the world’s largest producer of diamonds. Through sound management, its diamond wealth has transformed Botswana from one of the world’s poorest countries to one of the wealthiest in the Southern Africa region, with a per capita GDP of nearly $15,800 in 2008. Botswana has Africa’s highest average income. By one estimate, it has the fourth-highest gross national income at purchasing power parity in Africa, giving it a standard of living equal to that of Mexico or Turkey. Unlike the majority of African countries, Botswana has a negligible level of foreign debt. It earned the highest sovereign credit rating in Africa and has stockpiled foreign exchange reserves (over $7 billion in 2005/2006), amounting to almost two and a half years of current imports. And according to Transparency International, an NGO that monitors official corruption globally, it is Africa’s least corrupt country. Indeed, Botswana is ranked as the best credit risk in Africa. These are definitely not the kinds of credentials that are usually associated with African countries.

“Botswana has a wonderful story,” said Mo Ibrahim when the prize was awarded to Mogae. “Every man, woman and child knows about Mugabe, but people say, ‘Mogae, who is that?’ It’s great we honor people who honestly and cleanly served, and served well, and left when their time was up.”

Not many people know that Africans have leaders who honestly and cleanly serve, serve well and leave when their time is up. Africa’s better-known leaders have been despots such as Amin, Mobutu, Abacha and Mugabe. As Ibrahim noted when Mogae was announced as winner of the 2008 prize, “I am sure I am going to hear people say, ‘Who is Mogae? Like last year, people said: ‘Who is Chissano?’ ” Ibrahim was referring to the inaugural winner of the prize, former Mozambique President Joaquim Chissano, who stepped down voluntarily at the end of his tenure. “But everybody knows Mugabe,” he quipped.

Chissano won the first Mo Ibrahim prize in 2007 for “his role in leading Mozambique from conflict to peace and democracy.” In 1994 he won the first multiparty elections in the history of the country, and was re-elected president of the republic in 1999. Despite the fact that the Mozambican constitution allowed him to stand in the 2004 presidential elections, Chissano decided voluntarily not to do so. He bowed out of office for an elected successor, Armando Emilio Guebuza.

Chissano was one of the founding members of the Mozambican Liberation Front (FRELIMO), which fought Portuguese colonial rule. He played a crucial role in negotiating the 1974 Lusaka Accord, which ended colonial rule, and he has been at the forefront of Mozambican political life since then. He was prime minister of the transitional government that led up to independence in 1975 and was later appointed foreign minister under independent Mozambique’s first president, Samora Machel.

When President Machel died in a mysterious air crash in 1986, Chissano succeeded him as leader and devoted himself to restoring peace to his country. He led negotiations with the Mozambique National Resistance (RENAMO) that in October 1992 succeeded in ending 16 years of internal conflict. His ability to compromise and negotiate is hailed for helping Mozambique become a stable, democratic country. He also initiated the constitutional and economic reforms which culminated in the adoption of the 1990 constitution that led Mozambique to a multiparty system and an open market.

Announcing Chissano’s win in 2007, Kofi Annan, chair of the prize committee, said that “President Chissano’s achievements in bringing peace, reconciliation, stable democracy and economic progress to his country greatly impressed the committee. So, too, did his decision to step down without seeking the third term the constitution allowed.”

Chissano was praised by the award committee for “his government’s economic progress, poverty reduction programs, infrastructure development, anti-AIDS efforts and his role in leading Mozambique from conflict to peace and democracy.” He was also commended for his contributions outside his country’s borders, which included providing “a powerful voice for Africa on the international stage.”

Mo Ibrahim paid tribute to Chissano as “a man who has reconciled a divided nation and built the foundations for a stable, democratic and prosperous future for the country,” saying “he is a role-model not just for Africa, but for the rest of the world.”

But the rest of the world thought Chissano was a fluke in Africa’s murky waters. According to BBC Southern Africa correspondent Peter Biles, “Chissano is something of a rarity in Africa as a leader who has left office with his reputation intact.”

Indeed, a persistent concern raised about the prize is that the committee might soon run out of candidates. The fact that the prize can only go to a president who won a free election and then left office in accordance with the nation’s constitution rules out most of the continent’s rulers. History, however, leaves no vacuum. And addressing this concern, Ibrahim says with a mischievous smile that “there are so many potential great African leaders that the continent has even been able to lend one to the United States.”

Among Africa’s credible leaders is John Agyekum Kufuor of Ghana, who recently handed over power in a peaceful transition of government to Ghana’s new president, John Atta Mills. Kufuor himself took over from President Jerry Rawlings in a flawless exchange of democratic power in 2001. Ghana has therefore experienced its second peaceful transition of power from one political party to another in a decade. Kufuor, an Oxford-educated barrister, always wanted to be president. He became a member of Parliament and deputy foreign minister at the age of 30, hoping to achieve his dream from there. But that lasted only two and a half years. The regime was overthrown. Taking to the trenches to be a warlord was, however, not his style, even though he is about 1.93 meters tall (6 foot 4) and weighs over 110 kilograms (240 pounds). He stuck it out as an entrepreneur, once running a brick and tile factory, only to jump back into politics each time democracy was restored. He eventually became his country’s president at age 62 in 2001, after Rawlings defeated him when he ran for president in the 1996 elections. Kufuor’s victory marked the first peaceful democratic transition of power in Ghana since the country’s independence in 1957.

At the end of the stipulated two terms, Kufuor made no attempt to amend the constitution to extend his stay in office and allowed Ghanaians to freely choose their next leader. This was despite the fact that one of the foremost presidential candidates, Nana Dankwa Akufo-Addo, represented Kufuor’s political party, the New National Party (NNP). Akufo-Addo eventually lost to the rival party’s candidate.

Ghana’s peaceful transition of power attracted global attention. French President Nicolas Sarkozy described Atta Mills’ election as a “victory for democracy.” Canada’s foreign minister, Lawrence Cannon, also said in a written statement: “Canada congratulates the Ghanaian people for the overall peaceful, orderly and transparent manner in which the country’s 2008 parliamentary and presidential elections were conducted.”

Kufuor left office with high popularity ratings. A Primary Research Associates poll shows that nearly 70 percent of Ghanaians think President Kufuor gave the performance of his life in his tenure as president of the republic. Seventy and a half percent of those polled said Kufuor’s government had done “things important to them.” Fifty-eight and a half percent of interviewees expressed satisfaction “with the way the Kufuor government has handled the economy.”

Under his watch, Ghana’s gross domestic product quadrupled from 4 billion U.S. dollars in 2000 to almost $16 billion in 2008. With this windfall, Kufuor halved the level of poverty and increased the number of children in primary school by almost a quarter. He introduced free medical care for the poor in 2004 and free meals in schools. He took Ghana’s daily minimum wage from 58 cents to $2.25, reduced inflation from 42 percent to 18 percent and took measures to enhance press freedom.

Kufuor has company in Jakaya Mrisho Kikwete of Tanzania. After multiparty general elections in Dec. 2005, Kikwete was declared winner by the Electoral Commission and was sworn in as the fourth president of the United Republic of Tanzania on Dec. 21, 2005. If his track record of integrity is anything to go by, he will be handing his office over to an elected successor at the end of his tenure.

Kikwete drank from Mwalimu Julius Nyerere’s fountain of wisdom. Kikwete, being very close to the Mwalimu (teacher), has a governing philosophy and political views that were greatly influenced by Nyerere. He has been celebrated at home and abroad, especially in the donor community for fighting corruption, investing in people, particularly in education, and pushing for new investments.

His successes led the United States government to grant Tanzania $698 million under the Millennium Challenge Account assistance program. Indeed, then-President George W. Bush voiced a vote of confidence in Kikwete: “I’d like to express my happiness and satisfaction on the way you are committed to improving the economy, good governance and maintaining peace, not only in Tanzania but also Africa and the world at large.” Kikwete’s first notable success as African Union chairman was to help bring a two-month political crisis in Kenya to an end by brokering a power-sharing deal between Mwai Kibaki and Raila Odinga.

The benchmarks used to select Tanzania for the Millennium Challenge Corporation agreement were good governance, investment in manpower through education and health care, and economic policies. The U.K. government also granted the country the equivalent of $500 million for education. In recognition of the giant leaps made by the small country, the New York-based Africa-America Institute awarded Tanzania the Africa National Achievement Award in September 2007.

Still, these leaders and their countries are not without issues. For instance, Tanzania is in the bottom 10 percent of the world’s economies in terms of per capita income. And despite Botswana’s diamond wealth, unemployment is 18 percent, and about one-third of the people are poor. The election of Chissano was not uncontroversial. His son was implicated in the death of journalist Carlos Cardoso, a progressive Mozambican journalist who was murdered in 2000. Kufuor is presently under attack for what many Ghanaians believe is an over-the-top retirement package.

Besides, these honest leaders are too far and between for a continent of 54 countries. However, the fact that candidates could be found for the Mo Ibrahim Prize in Africa for two consecutive years shows that democratic change is gradually taking place across the continent. The problem, however, according to Ibrahim, is that the world has been slow to recognize the change. In an interview with The New York Times, he hoped that the prize will contribute to a lively debate about leadership in Africa, especially since “almost everyone knows about Robert Mugabe while far fewer know about Festus G. Mogae.”

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