No Prize for Kikwete

With apologies to BDM, I’m not crazy about putting predictions at the heart of International Relations, but I still feel like I should admit when I get a forecast about global politics very wrong.  I thought that former Tanzanian President Jakaya Kikwete would be a shoo-in for the Mo Ibrahim Prize, but the prize committee decided not to award a prize this year.  Given that Kikwete, who stepped down from the Presidency after two terms in 2015, arguably meets all the conditions for the prize, it’s a bit of a slap in the face for him.

If you’re not familiar with the Ibrahim Prize, it’s the single largest monetary prize in the world: the recipient gets $5 million upfront, and then an additional $200,000 every year for the rest of his/her life.  Just the upfront portion is about 4 times what you get for winning a Nobel Peace Prize, and 8 times the amount of a MacArthur Genius Grant.  The prize is bankrolled by the Mo Ibrahim Foundation, established in 2006 by the Sudanese-British telecoms billionaire.

Why have such a colossal prize?  To encourage good governance in Africa at the highest levels.  The criteria for eligibility are being:

  • a former African president/prime minister,
  • who has left office in the last three years,
  • who was democratically elected,
  • who served his/her constitutionally mandated term,
  • and who demonstrated exceptional leadership while in office.

The unspoken subtext for the prize is that it serves as a giant bribe to encourage African heads of state to leave office when they are supposed to.  Rather than hunker down and change the constitution to try and remain in office forever (in order to enjoy the spoils of a neopatrimonial system), if you leave on time you can get a very comfortable standard of living without the headache of having to worry when you’ll be deposed or assassinated.  (The typical dictator lasts around 8-10 years in office.)  Given the long-term costs associated with the conflict trap, it’s arguably much cheaper for everyone to just pay African leaders to leave when their terms are up.

Unfortunately, the Ibrahim prize doesn’t seem to be living up to its sotto voce purpose.  Over just the last two years leaders in Burundi, Rwanda, Congo-Brazzaville have altered constitutional rules preventing them from running again, and there are signs that the same could happen soon in both the DRC and Sierra Leone.  Perhaps part of the reason for the Prize’s limited impact is that it is so rarely awarded.  In its nine years of existence, the prize has only been handed out four times (as well as an honorary award to Nelson Mandela).

The Prize Committee seems to be insisting on the 5th criteria, and wants to reward truly exceptional African leaders instead of those who meet the bare minimum criteria.  But it surprised me that they didn’t award the prize to Kikwete, who oversaw a 7% annual growth rate while in office, kept inflation and unemployment under control, and left office with a 64% approval rating.  Kikwete was also popular in both Western and Eastern capitals, successfully dealt with the 2008 coup in Comoros, and lent his mediation to various East African conflicts (including the 2008 electoral violence in Kenya, the 2015 crisis in Burundi, and various rebellions in the DRC).  Probably the biggest mark against Kikwete is that he handed over power to a fellow leader from the CCM political party, thereby extending CCM’s rule in Tanzania to 39 years (the longest in Africa), but the CCM wears its glove over Tanzanian politics fairly lightly by regional standards, and the 2015 election to replace Kikwete was mostly free and fair.  Indeed, awarding Kikwete the Ibrahim Prize would have been validation not just for him, but for Tanzania as a whole, which despite its persistent poverty  remains one of the most peaceful and stable countries in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Making the decision to pass on Kikwete even more surprising is the fact that the Prize Committee Chair was Dr. Salim Ahmed Salim, a fellow Tanzanian and CCM-er.  Salim defended the committee’s decision as simply the result of the “extremely high bar” recipients must meet, but it’s unfortunate that he also happens to have run against Kikwete in the CCM’s presidential nomination process back in 2005, which engendered some bad blood at the time.

Kikwete gets another shot at the prize next year, but would anything cause the committee to change their minds in the interim?  Hmmmmmm, I’m not sure where all of this leaves my follow-up prediction that Kikwete could make a serious run for U.N. Secretary-General down the line.

The Distracted Driving of American Diplomacy

In January 2010, a message went out from the State Department’s headquarters in Washington, D.C. to every U.S. embassy around the world.  In this message, the State Department instructed each of its embassies to conduct a formal diplomatic démarche with their host governments on a pressing topic the State Department had recently grown quite concerned with: texting while driving.  In practice, this meant that somebody from the U.S. Embassy would have to go in person to find a counterpart in the host country’s government, explain to them how concerned the United States was becoming with the problem of “distracted driving,” ask them what policies/laws their country had concerning texting while driving, and then report that information back to Washington.

At first, one might wonder why American diplomats all around the world had to scramble to set up governmental meetings about distracted driving–does the State Department really have nothing better to do?  In the State Department’s defense, however, traffic accidents are a big deal everywhere, and are one of the leading causes of human death.  It’s estimated that there are about “1.24 million traffic deaths a year – nearly triple the UN’s estimate of annual murders, and twenty times the estimated annual total of deaths in wars.”  The World Health Organization is quite concerned, noting that traffic accidents are the single most important cause of death among those aged 15-29 worldwide, and further estimating that traffic accidents cost the planet about 3% of global GDP annually.  So it’s very likely that the impulse behind the U.S.’s worldwide démarche was humanitarian in nature.  Still, while the WHO’s most recent report does note that “distracted driving is a serious and growing threat to road safety,” it nevertheless appears as seventh out of seven reforms countries should undertake to improve road users’ behavior (behind things like increasing motorcycle helmet use, increasing seat-belt usage, and reducing drunk driving), suggesting that road safety experts do not accord it topmost priority at the moment.

More broadly, the démarche illustrates a disturbing one-size-fits-all diplomatic mentality, as well as some of the perils of America’s hegemonic influence.  The WikiLeaks-hosted Public Library of U.S. Diplomacy records the responses that 62* U.S. embassies sent back to Washington after having completed their missions: everywhere from Bangui to Budapest, Sana’a to Seoul.  And reading between the lines, it’s pretty easy to get a sense of how many American embassies, particularly in the developing world, thought their instructions from Washington were rather ridiculous and very poorly tailored to the actual conditions in their host countries.  Some expressed their dissatisfaction via arch terseness, whereas others were more than happy to explain in great detail how their host governments might have more pressing matters to deal with than texting while driving laws:

Many roads in Chad are so deeply pot-holed, or function so much like sand-traps, that they are suitable only for travel via camel, horse or donkey. There are few police on public thoroughfares except in large towns, few hospitals to which to take accident victims, no real ability outside the capital to enforce existing driver’s license or vehicle maintenance laws, and little formal driver’s training. Driver’s licenses can be obtained in many locations through bribery. Regulations on how vehicles may be used are spotty: it is not against the law to pilot a motorcycle with four riders, or to carry a 50-gallon drum filled with gasoline on the back of a motorcycle and a live goat on the handlebars. Transport vehicles are often overloaded to the point where they collapse under their cargo, and passenger vehicles designed for eight routinely carry 20 inside and one or more hanging out the open doors. Recent laws ban carrying more than 20 passengers in the open back of pick-up or transport trucks unless seats and an overhead cover are installed. The 1980-era Peugeots that serve as taxis in N’Djamena are know euphemistically as “neuf morts,” as they are assumed to kill an average of nine people when they crash. Chad recently followed Cameroon in passing motorcycle helmet laws, but many of those who possess helmets carry rather than wear them when they ride.

Taking a step back, very few other countries around the world besides the U.S. would attempt to unilaterally conduct a worldwide governmental information campaign on this scale, particularly unprompted and for an issue that is unquestionably within the remit of countries’ domestic politics.  For better and worse, this is the unique role the United States continues to play in global politics, and the U.S.’s influence is such that countries have to pay attention when it speaks.  In Tanzania, the démarche seems to have been conducted at the very high level of a direct meeting between the U.S. Ambassador and the Tanzanian Foreign Minister–one can only wonder at what was going through the Minister’s mind during the meeting…

* Because of the semi-random nature in which the Cablegate cables were collected, only some of the cable traffic in a given year was recorded and leaked.  Presumably all or almost all U.S. diplomatic missions in the world undertook the démarche as requested.

Nyerere and Diversionary War

There’s a concept in International Relations called “diversionary war“: a war governments deliberately start in order to distract their populations of troubles at home by giving them an external foe.  The canonical example is probably the decision in 1982 by the Argentine military junta to start a war with the United Kingdom over the Falkland Islands (Malvinas), which they subsequently lost pretty handily.  Indeed, recent scholarship suggests that most governments which start diversionary wars go on to lose them, which points to the tragic irony of diversionary wars: the same domestic unrest that prompts governments to start them also usually makes those governments ineffective at waging them.

This U.S. diplomatic cable from 1976 relating a private meeting between Tanzanian President Julius Nyerere and the U.S. Ambassador to Tanzania offers further evidence that policymakers do indeed pursue diversionary foreign policies at times.  Commenting on growing military tensions between Jomo Kenyatta’s Kenya and Idi Amin’s Uganda, Nyerere says:


Despite calling for peaceful restraint in this cable, it would ultimately be Nyerere’s Tanzania, not Kenya, which would go to war with Uganda two years later, ultimately leading to the ouster of the increasingly brutal and erratic dictator.

(See also the cameo by Donald Rumsfeld in this 1976 cable.)