I wonder if the Mo Ibrahim Foundation expected the storm of controversy that would surround its announcement that the former Mozambique president, Joachim Chissano, was the first winner of the $5m African Leadership award.
Comments poured in from every corner of the globe. Some pundits were openly scornful, others more measured in their opinion and many thought it was a good idea.
But some, who should have known better, went too far. Richard Dowden described the award as a "big African joke" and said that Ibrahim, who had taken pride in not paying a penny in bribes while he was building his mobile communications empire, was now "spending that fortune on bribing African rulers to do their job: make life better for their people."
This is unfair. Dowden, as Africa correspondent for The Independent in an earlier life and now head of the Royal African Society in the UK, knows Africa and its very special problems well. In my opinion, he was head and shoulders above the usual crop of Western parachute journalists who arrive in Africa with their minds made up and proceed to find all sorts of stories that confirm their prejudices. They do neither their readers, nor Africa, nor, for that matter, their profession any good.
Dowden was different. His reports had depth and revealed aspects of Africa that others of his tribe were totally blind to. So it was very disappointing to read his comment that Mo Ibrahim was "bribing African leaders to do their job". This was a cheap shot aimed at feeding the stereotype of all Africans as incorrigibly corrupt and unable to respond to challenges unless someone is waving dollar notes in front of them.
Surprisingly, he then changes tack and says that Chissano, "a nice steady, slightly boring man, has brought Mozambique from the depths of horror and starvation in the 1980s to a stable country with an economy growing at nearly 9%." How many leaders, past or present, can Dowden name who have done anything similar in any part of the world? If there are any, name them--they deserve our highest honours.
Dowden then describes the "depths of horror" he alluded to earlier. He writes about the civil war thus: "The rebels were formed, funded and supplied by the old white Rhodesian regime and then by Apartheid South Africa. They operated by terror, massacring whole villages and cutting off hands, feet and noses of men, women and children."
He is absolutely right. What happened in Mozambique was a terrible crime against humanity. It has few parallels in history--perhaps Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge will come closest. The country is still littered with millions of landmines, maiming and killing children even as you read this. …