As billionaires go, Mo Ibrahim is pretty modest. “Why are you calling me Dr Ibrahim?” he laughs, a shade embarrassed, during our conversation. “Please, call me Mo!” When asked to name a moment in his life of which he is most proud, he hesitates for the first time during the interview. “Proud moments, I don’t know; maybe my three children. I’ve had happy moments, yes.”
Had he been any less humble, he could have taken his pick. There was the time he was named the most powerful black Briton; or when he joined Bill Gates’ Giving Pledge; or Nelson Mandela praising his foundation’s work in Africa (more of that later). But possibly his most remarkable achievement to date has been to put mobile phones and the Internet into the hands and homes of African people, transforming communication infrastructure in the continent forever.
Ibrahim started out in the 1980s as an engineer for British Telecom, which, after six years of frustration, he quit. He set up his own company from his dining table in West Hampstead. Within 11 years he had sold it to Marconi for almost US$1 billion. Not bad for a start-up. But he wasn’t done yet.
His next business, Celtel, was acquired for US$3.4 billion five years later — a gravity-defying trajectory that added 24 million phone and Internet users in 14 African countries in a few years. Most importantly, Ibrahim was determined that Celtel should be run as a ‘clean’ company from the outset, declaring it would not accept so much as a dollar in bribes.
It was a challenging stance to take but it paved the way for what he has been focusing on ever since he sold Celtel in 2005 — a transparency index of Africa, in conjunction with a hefty annual prize for African leaders who prove their integrity through actions, not words.
“After I sold Celtel, I wanted to focus on investing back in Africa, because that is where Celtel made its money,” 70-year-old Ibrahim recalls over the phone from Monaco, his home for half of the year. “I wanted to achieve the maximum impact with whatever limited resources I had. And, I thought, the major issue in Africa is leadership and governance. Governance is about building institutions, establishing rule of law and delivery of that basket of public goods in areas of law, education, infrastructure, jobs, transparency and sound management of public finances. That led us to establish the Ibrahim Index of Governance in Africa to research and publish annually a scorecard for each and every country. As for leadership, we started with the obvious thing, which was our Annual Prize for Leadership.”
Worth many multiples of the Nobel Prize, the Mo Ibrahim Prize for Achievement in African Leadership offers a former African executive head of state or a government US$5 million over 10 years, plus US$200,000 a year for life thereafter. Importantly, if the Ibrahim Prize Committee does not consider anyone worthy that year, it will withhold it. In 2009, 2010, 2012, 2013 and 2015 the Prize Committee, after in-depth review, did not select a winner.
“Initially people reacted with suspicion. They wondered if I am trying to get myself elected somewhere; did I have economic interests; or am I after oil or gas or mining concessions? But you gain credibility with time. We have no agenda except to improve things in Africa. Now most African governments voluntarily engage with us,” he says.
The sizeable prize is a useful tool, reckons Ibrahim, to get African people talking about the importance of democratic leadership. “The prize brought the issue of leadership to the conversation over dinner in African homes. It raises the question — why did my president not win the prize? What is their president doing so well?”
But a prize only goes so far. It can be tough to fix a problem without measuring it first. So ‘big data’ was the next step to shining light on the good and bad bits of African leadership with the Ibrahim Index of Governance in Africa. This put information into the public domain like never before. “Civil society is growing stronger now everyone has a phone or is on the Internet. Information is a good thing,” says Ibrahim.
The index judges each of the 54 African countries through 94 parameters within four categories: safety and rule of law; participation and human rights; sustainable economic opportunity; and human development. It’s the index’s 10th anniversary and, after a decade of relative transparency, Ibrahim is disappointed. Nearly two-thirds of Africans live in a country in which safety and rule of law has deteriorated over the last 10 years, according to the index. Corruption is estimated to still cost Africa an estimated US$148 billion annually. “We can do better than that,” Ibrahim was quoted as saying when the latest report was released.
Why has Africa stagnated, despite all his best efforts, as well as all the other millions in aid and support that has been channelled into the continent? Ibrahim is a realist. “The problem is not just an African phenomenon — look around us in the world. There are social tensions, seclusions, international discourse is moving towards violence and aggression. Look at the US elections; look at the rise of illiberal governments in the heart of Europe; look at the Middle East. There are a lot of issues dividing us and we lack decent statesmanship around the world; Africa is not so separated. Frankly, we are living in dangerous times.”
The biggest opportunity by far for Africa, says Ibrahim, lies in its young people. “We have a tsunami of young people coming. We need a better education system, they need skills focused on the jobs market. If we do that we have a fantastic future. On the other hand, if we fail to do that and we end up with a large number of unemployed young people, this is a global time bomb for everyone, not just Africa.”
Ultimately though, Ibrahim believes that the future of Africa lies in the hands of Africans themselves. “You can’t import reform — it has to come from within.”