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This African Democracy Prize Finally Found A Winner

The world’s biggest single award, which recognizes African national leaders who fight poverty and then willingly relinquish power, will finally recognize a winner after going two years without a qualifying recipient.

The Mo Ibrahim Prize for Achievement in African Leadership was given Monday to outgoing Namibian president Hifikepunye Pohamba, who has led the country since 2005. The prize includes a hefty reward of $5 million, paid over five years, followed by an annual stipend of $200,000 for life — far more than the Nobel Prizes’ payout of 8 million Swedish kronor, worth around $1 million.

Though not necessarily America’s idea of a perfect democratic reformer, Pohamba has brought significant progress in his 10 years at Namibia’s helm. He first entered politics as a rebel fighting for independence from South Africa, which Namibia gained in 1990. The party he leads, SWAPO, derives its name from the socialist rebel group it supplanted, the South West Africa People’s Organization. Pohamba was the hand-picked successor to independent Namibia’s first president, Sam Nujoma, who ruled for 15 years.

He has now reached the end of his second term, the maximum under Namibia’s constitution, and will be replaced on March 21 by SWAPO’s Hage Geingob.

Before becoming president, Pohamba was a government minister for land affairs, during which time he implemented a program for the government to buy back white farmer’s properties — on a principle called “willing buyer, willing seller” — and redistribute it to blacks. (Whites make up about 7 percent of Namibia’s population.)

He has since helped the country of over 2 million people become “a well-governed, stable and inclusive democracy with strong media freedom and respect for human rights,” according to a statement by the Mo Ibrahim Foundation, which administers the prize.

The Ibrahim Prize is named for billionaire British-Sudanese cell phone entrepreneur Mo Ibrahim, who has invested heavily in poverty alleviation and democracy on the African continent. The prize has rigorous requirements and is only awarded if a suitable candidate exists, and so it has gone unclaimed for four of the eight years it has existed.

Some have criticized the prize for focusing too selectively on heads of state, when government ministers and civic leaders do just as much work to improve their country. But the Foundation insists that it has “not cornered the market for African prize giving,” a sentiment that Ibrahim himself reiterated to Al-Jazeera on Monday, saying, “we are not lowering our standards.” Africa has more than its share of presidents-for-life, and the prize is a worthwhile way of recognizing leaders who respect the democratic system and leave office with their country’s citizens better-off.

The Ibrahim Foundation also maintains an annual “index of governance,” which recognizes improvements in prosperity, education and freedom around the continent.

Follow Ivan Plis on Twitter

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