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Mo Ibrahim prepares for a meeting in Geneva, on Sunday, April 1, 2007.Chris Young/The Globe and Mail

For the third time in six years, Africa has failed to produce a winner for the hotly-debated $5-million Ibrahim Prize for leadership.

The decision, announced today without any explanation, casts a harsh spotlight on the poor democratic record of many African heads of state. Several former leaders were eligible, including the former presidents of Senegal and Zambia, but they were deemed unworthy of the prize.

The prize, financed by Sudanese telecom billionaire Mo Ibrahim, is awarded to a democratic African leader who has peacefully left power in the past three years. It was given in the past to the former leaders of Mozambique, Botswana and Cape Verde.

The prize is $5-million over 10 years, followed by $200,000 annually for life. The prize was not awarded in 2009 or 2010, and there was heated speculation over whether it would be awarded this year.

The Ibrahim Foundation revealed today that it could not find an African who deserves the prize. It did not give any explanation of the flaws of the eligible candidates, but former presidents such as Abdoulaye Wade of Senegal have been widely criticized for their attempts to cling to power.

Mr. Wade was defeated in an election this year after making a controversial bid for a third term in office, despite a normal constitutional limit of two terms. Another former president, Rupiah Banda of Zambia, has been criticized for corruption in his government during his three-year term.

"We have a deficit in leadership – that is a fact," said Mohamed ElBaradei, the Egyptian reform leader and Nobel Peace Prize laureate, who is a member of the Ibrahim Foundation's prize committee.

"We are sending a message to the public that you need to redouble your efforts," Mr. ElBaradei told a press conference in London today.

Former Botswana president Festus Mogae, who won the Ibrahim prize in 2008, said he was disappointed in the foundation's inability to find a winner this year. But he said many African leaders do well for 10 or 15 years "and then something happens."

The repeated failure to award the leadership prize is widely seen as a huge embarrassment for Africa, but its founder, Mr. Ibrahim, defended the decision and insisted that it is not proof of bad leadership in the continent.

Because of its strict rules, only four or five of Africa's former leaders are usually eligible for the prize each year, Mr. Ibrahim noted. He said the prize would "lose its credibility" if undeserving winners were picked. "We are not going to compromise," he said. "We're not just singing, 'Africa, Africa.'"

Asked whether Africans should feel dispirited by the failure to award the prize, Mr. Ibrahim said a similar prize in Europe or Asia might struggle to find a winner in three of six years.

"You should not be discouraged," Mr. Ibrahim told the press conference today. "In general, we are making progress."

Mr. Ibrahim also released his annual index on governance in Africa, showing that most African countries have been doing better on most indicators in recent years.

There has been a "marked improvement in governance" over the past decade, Mr. Ibrahim said. Three-quarters of parameters have shown improvement, especially on economic and gender issues.

But he also noted a decline in Africa's score on human rights and public participation, and he warned that the dramatic growth of Africa's economy will be unbalanced if the human rights and democracy scores do not improve.