And the winner is......nobody

It was announced today that for the second year in a row the Ibrahim Prize will not be awarded. The award recognizes democratically elected African leaders who have demonstrated skilled leadership in office and, importantly in a region known for long-serving autocrats, allow for the peaceful transition of power at the end of their terms. In the decade since it was launched, the award has only been given to four individuals.

The prize is the most financially generous of its sort. Recipients are given an initial payout of $5 million and $200,000 annually thereafter. The brilliance of it in this regard is that it changes the incentives for individual leaders to establish healthy political norms and institutions. While it may not deter a committed kleptocrat from raiding public funds, it does increase the opportunity cost of corruption and abuse of power by certain segment of leaders. That it was not awarded to any leader for 2016 is disappointing in the sense that one would hope that in a continent of more than 50 countries, at least one qualified leader would emerge to claim the prize. The upside of this is that it lends credibility to the award. Rather than being the type of hardware that dictators love to pass around to each other (such as the illustrious International Kim Jong-il Prize), the Ibrahim Prize seeks to foster virtuous behavior and lays out a clear minimum bar to meet. Its goal is not to simply pat do-gooders on the back, but to encourage that pool of do-gooders to grow in a way that fosters beneficial conditions for societies.

Uganda's Yoweri Museveni, president since 1986, extended his rule in an election held in early 2016. An EU report states that the election "fell short of international standards for the conduct of democratic elections at key stages."

Uganda's Yoweri Museveni, president since 1986, extended his rule in an election held in early 2016. An EU report states that the election "fell short of international standards for the conduct of democratic elections at key stages."

The importance of institutions in development has been thoroughly discussed and most observers would place them towards the top of a list of factors shaping development. The case for the primacy of political and economic institutions is notably advanced by Acemoglu and Robinson in Why Nations Fail and their academic research. Other researchers note the importance of institutions while deemphasizing them relative to other factors. Regardless, the consensus would have to be that institutions play some role in creating stable, wealthy states and that 'good' institutions are preferable to 'bad' ones, although definitions may vary.1

The importance of institutions in development has been thoroughly discussed and most observers would place them towards the top of a list of factors shaping development. The case for the primacy of political and economic institutions is notably advanced by Acemoglu and Robinson in Why Nations Fail and their academic research. Other researchers note the importance of institutions while deemphasizing them relative to other factors. Regardless, the consensus would have to be that institutions play some role in creating stable, wealthy states and that 'good' institutions are preferable to 'bad' ones, although definitions may vary.

Last year was a mixed bag for Africa in terms of progress on democracy and corruption. Only in 18 of 44 sub-Saharan African countries improved between 2015 and 2016 in Transparency International's Corruption Perceptions Index. The average score for the region was a paltry 31, compared the global average of 43 (0 representing a totally corrupt country and 100 representing one that is totally free of corruption). Similarly, Freedom House noted that the region was one of "entrenched autocrats, fragile institutions," in its most recent Freedom in the World Report. Elections (or the lack thereof) in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, The Gambia, and Somalia, among others, left much to be desired. 2 In light of all of this, it may not be surprising that the Ibrahim Prize would go unclaimed again.

The recent slide away from democratic institutions and good governance practices is not unique to Africa.  One need look no further than the United States to find evidence of this global illiberal trend. Still, the effects are particularly acute when countries begin at such a low baseline. Key elections are to be held in several African countries this year. Perhaps they will mark an inflection point for the region and 2017 will be a year of improved institutions. In many ways, this relies upon individual leaders, such as Rwanda's Paul Kagame and DRC's Joseph Kabila, to demonstrate true political courage and resist the temptation to cling to power or manipulate results. Hopefully, a year from now we will see the Ibrahim Prize being awarded to a deserving former head of state.

1 The simple version of Acemoglu and Robinson's framework examines this as 'inclusive' versus 'extractive' institutions.

2 The situations in both The Gambia and Somalia appear to have turned out for the better in the early months of 2017. Adama Barrow ascended to the Presidency of The Gambia in January after Yahya Jammeh finally relented in his attempts to stay in power. Somalia held their long-delayed presidential election in early February. Mohammed Abdulahi Farmajo won that contest and is now in office. Farmajo is a former prime minister of Somalia, a dual citizen of the US, and most recently worked in the New York State Transportation Department.