Better than printing money?

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The gala to mark the inaugural prize for African leadership was a ritzy affair, as one might expect for an award that has been touted as the biggest in history. But Observer heard a few spoilsports muttering that the prize, given out on Monday night at the rebuilt library of Alexandria, might fail to do what it says on the tin.

The $5m jackpot is meant to provide a lucrative exit from the corridors of power for leaders who might otherwise be tempted to hang around beyond their allotted term for fear of the huge pay cut that relinquishing office would entail.

“If I was a dictator, why would I leave for $5m?” asked one distinguished guest. “I have the central bank. I can print money.”

Joaquim Chissano, the former president of Mozambique and first winner, is no such kleptocrat, however, and says he has yet to decide what to do with his newfound riches. In any case, he stepped down of his own accord while the prize was still a glint in the eye of the Sudanese-born entrepreneur, Mo Ibrahim.

Ibrahim himself, who made millions bringing mobile telephony to Africa, may now be a zealous philanthropist but there is evidence he might have done well not to have given up the day job. Upon plumping for Chissano, the prize committee was unable to reach him for 48 hours while he was in southern Sudan. “Being Africa, there was no coverage,” said Kofi Annan, the former UN boss who chaired the committee. “It was as if he had fallen off the face of the earth.”

Prodi’s timing

Romano Prodi, Italy’s weary-looking prime minister, is spending long hours travelling to promote his country overseas – most recently in Kazakhstan, Russia and the United Arab Emirates – only to return home to tackle the next domestic crisis.

Talk about bad timing. Italy’s complicated mix of trade unions has scheduled a nationwide transport strike for Friday – the very same day that Prodi is due to meet France’s Nicolas Sarkozy in Nice to talk, among other things, about the possible sale of lossmaking Alitalia to the acquisitive Air France.

At least the unions would be reinforcing the sense of urgency on the Italian side to complete the sale, which Prodi said on Tuesday he wanted to finalise by Christmas. Last night the Prodi team was girding itself for a long night of talks with the unions, of which nine are also separately negotiating their future with the national carrier.

Observer hears the deadline for interested parties, including Air France, to submit their non-binding offers for Alitalia has slipped again, from this Friday to December 6.

The unions, striking over annual contract negotiations, are actually pushing for privatisation to save the airline, although they have worries about Air France’s reportedly drastic restructuring proposals.

For the unions, this presents an unusual chance to register their displeasure on two separate issues with a single strike.

A new Spitzer

Eliot Spitzer swaggered into the New York governor’s mansion in January, having translated his aggressive “Sheriff of Wall Street” persona into a decisive victory for the state’s top job.

But after not even 12 months in the job, that old Spitzer confidence seems to have faded. After being outmanoeuvred by experienced state legislators and stepping into a scandal, Spitzer has learnt the hard way that governing is not quite the same thing as prosecuting. “I’m not naturally suited to this job, perhaps,” Spitzer told The New York Times.

The remark, printed on the paper’s front page on Tuesday, sounded a little self-pitying and a lot different from the square-jawed, tough-talking attorney-general whose investigations made him feared on Wall Street.

It seems clear that Spitzer – who has few allies in his own party, to say nothing of the Republican party – is trying to appear contrite.

But many will wonder – legitimately – whether the contrite Spitzer is the true Spitzer . . . and how long the new attitude will last.

Family affairs

Once nicknamed Oily, Greasy and Gassy, New Brunswick’s three Irving brothers – J.K., Arthur and Jack – sit atop one of North America’s most sprawling family businesses.

The empire, started by their grandfather in the late 19th century, includes Canada’s biggest oil refinery, more than 1,000 service stations in eastern Canada and the north-eastern US, vast tracts of forest, pulp and paper mills, a homebuilder, newspapers and more. Forbes magazine this year estimated the Irvings’ wealth at close to $6bn, though others suspect the real figure is much higher.

The three brothers, all in their 70s, have increasingly handed over management of the businesses to their offspring. Recent reports in the Globe and Mail suggest that some members of the younger generation are putting self-interest ahead of family harmony.

One problem is that the oil refinery and service stations, run by Arthur and his two sons, are swimming in cash, while forest products, managed by J.K. and his sons, have been hit by the soaring Canadian dollar and lacklustre prices. Meanwhile, Jack’s side of the family is chaffing for a bigger slice of the action.

The family empire is controlled by a series of Bermuda-based trusts, set up by the family patriarch, K.C. Irving, before he died in 1992. A restructuring – some would say break-up – now appears to be in the offing. One unanswered question is how much, if any, of the assets will be put up for sale to outsiders.

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