By Courtney Trenwith
As the founder of the world’s richest cash prize, Sudanese billionaire businessman and philanthropist Mo Ibrahim is unapologetically striving to solve Africa’s governance crisis and clean up business globally — including in the Middle East
"We need to take charge of the continent,” Mo Ibrahim declares, summing up his argument on Africa.
Punchy and to the point, the comment is much like anything the billionaire – one of the richest Arabs in the world – has to say. During our one-hour interview on the balcony of his suite at the Palazzo Versace hotel along Dubai Creek, Ibrahim calls for a change in the incommensurate philanthropic culture among wealthy Muslims in the Gulf, blames GCC government’s favourable policies for the “laziness” of Middle Eastern investors in Africa and argues there have been more commendable leaders in Africa than in the West in the past decade.
Brazen or simply unwilling to rose-tint his opinions, the Sudanese businessman who founded African telecommunications company Celtel in 1998 is more than anyone else in the world holding African leaders to account. Since 2000, the annual Ibrahim Index of African Governance has provided the most comprehensive assessment of African governments’ performances.
Additionally, the Ibrahim Prize for Achievement in African Leadership is the richest prize in the world, worth $5m over 10 years and a $200,000 annual pension thereafter. It is awarded to former African leaders who have worked to improve their countries without corruption and who gracefully stepped down from office when they were expected to.
The prize is intended to not only inspire great leadership but to also stir up discussion among lay Africans. A lack of coherence across the continent has allowed serious issues to fester, including a lack of economic integration, extremism, the growth in lawless areas being overtaken by militias, the illicit flow of state money offshore and environmental degradation.
“What we lack is strong, clear leadership in Africa, frankly,” Ibrahim says. “There was a time when we had strong voices in Africa, credible leaders, starting from (former Ghana president Kwame) Nkrumah, (Egypt’s second president Gamal Abdel) Nasser and that era (1950s and ‘60s), and president (Julius Kambarage) Nyerere from Tanzania (1960-85); we had (former South African presidents Nelson) Mandela and [Thabo] Mbeki; we’ve had [former Nigerian president Olusegun] Obasanjo. We’ve had a number of people who are really strong and effective … who were really willing to look beyond their borders to a pan-African position and they were really well respected in Africa and outside Africa.
“At the moment you look around and you have a lack of such political leadership.”
Attempts by the African Union to form a stronger voice across all 54 African states have largely had little effect, he argues. Ibrahim was the lead author of an open letter to the union ahead of its annual meeting in January, in which business leaders and human rights activists said the group’s active response to the crises in South Sudan and Burundi would be an ultimate indication of its effectiveness.
“This is a grave test of AU credibility, and of the continent’s ability to solve its own problems,” they wrote.
Despite the pleas, the union voted against a UN-backed proposal to send in 5,000 peace keepers to Burundi, where President Pierre Nkurunziza is seeking a third term, and no decisive action has been taken on South Sudan.
“I don’t want to be too harsh because this is important for us … but we hope that the African Union will develop into a much more effective organisation, and we have a tall agenda,” Ibrahim says.
In nine years, there have been only four recipients of Ibrahim’s leadership award: the former president of Namibia, Hifikeypunye Pohamba (2014), Cape Verde’s Pedro De Verona Rodrigues Pires (2011), Botswana’s Festus Gontebanye Mogae (2008) and the former leader of Mozambique, Joaquim Alberto Chissano (2007), and one honorary award to former South African president, the late Nelson Mandela.
“When we launched the prize, we made it clear that this is not a pension, it’s not a birthright, it is a prize for excellence and excellence by its nature is rare, otherwise it would not have been excellence. And we will not shy away. We expect some year we will not find the right people to fill that,” Ibrahim, who is not a member of the independent committee, says.
“Imagine this was a European prize. Over the last 10 years, could you have found five European leaders who really provided us with that excellence in leadership? I think it’s very difficult. In my mind, I can only find one: [German Chancellor Angela] Merkel.
“This dearth of leadership is not just an African phenomenon, it’s everywhere. Look at [Australia], every time I go to a meeting I meet a different prime minister. That’s why the world is in a mess right now, because of a lack of leadership everywhere.”
The index, which is based on 93 indicators, has revealed a stark correlation between economic prosperity and good governance. Progress was witnessed in the majority of African countries between 2000 and 2008, but once the global economy plunged, so did accountability among legislators, the index committee’s analysis shows.
“[The strong] commodity prices and the fast growth period we have seen over 10 years somehow eased political pressure to reform,” Ibrahim says. “Usually when the government feels they’re able to buy their way out they become a little bit more lax in pushing development. The fact is, this growth in Africa in the last 10 years went to 0.1 percent – not even 1 percent – of the people. It just helped create an elite. Somehow issues of reform and improving governance were stalled. We should have really utilised the favourable economic situation to fire our economies, really build forward. I think many of our countries failed to do that and now we’re going to pay the price for this.”
However, Ibrahim remains optimistic. Belt tightening across the continent will inspire citizens to more carefully consider their governments’ actions, he says. “Don’t forget the rise in civil society. Civil society in Africa is very important because, whatever people say about Africa, really there is great political space compared to people in the Middle East, for example,” he says.
“Most African countries are democratic to some extent. We have reasonable elections in well over 30 countries out of the 54, so the situation is not that bad really, and once you have an active civil society supported with all this social media, technologies, etcetera, it’s very hard to put the lid back on.”
Seventeen African countries are due to go to the polls this year. Ibrahim says it is “difficult” to predict how many elections will be held free and fairly, but there are some obvious countries of concern, such as the Democratic Republic of Congo and Burundi.
Even in Uganda, which has experienced robust economic growth, international observers have alleged corruption in last week’s election, which saw incumbent president Yoweri Museveni extend his 30-year rule.
Ibrahim says he can understand the attraction to some of hanging onto executive power.
“Suddenly you have private jets, you have motorcades, you have helicopters, you get driven everywhere, you have red carpets - it’s a different kind of living … and this satisfies some people,” he says.
Ibrahim himself has been described as the most powerful black man in the UK, where he has been based for decades. Slightly embarrassed, he refutes the suggestion.
“I never thought, honestly, that I, myself, had any sort of power,” he says. “I queue wherever I go. In Britain, I’m called the most powerful black man [but] many times when I give my passport there, they look at me, they type something, they look at me and they type many things; all the other guys go straight away [but] because I have a funny name people wonder if I’m a Muslim terrorist or what, I don’t know, but I always take longer.”
Good governance is also, he argues, intricately linked to good business. Ibrahim refers to the recent court battles initiated by British and French governments to make Google cough up millions of dollars in alleged unpaid tax to illustrate his point.
“We will start to realise that business can be a force for good, because business is not necessarily evil. Sometimes people do stupid things - in many cases, you’ll find it’s really the fault of governments who failed to legislate,” he says.
“Look at this big fuss about taxation. At the root of this really is the failure of governments to implement proper rules and to reach international agreements. Business [is] global; governments still work in solo - there’s a total mismatch and that’s a problem. That’s why business make the best of this, they pick and choose where they pay taxes. What the business is doing is legal.”
Ibrahim has taken the principles he preaches to governments and applied them to business. He is a founding member of The B Team, an organisation of private sector leaders including the likes of Richard Branson, Arianna Huffington and Blake Mycoskie, who are attempting to clean up the world of business. The B Team is particularly targeting corruption and money laundering, which it says “are a drag on economies”, while advocating the benefits of prioritising people and the planet alongside profits.
Ibrahim also has been appointed to the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, a CEO-led organisation that promotes sustainable business.
It is an imperative issue for a continent that has been described by many as the next big place to be. Billions of dollars are being ploughed into many African states, from the US to China, making Africa the second most attractive investment destination globally, ranking just behind North America. A record $87bn of foreign direct investment (FDI) flowed into most of the region’s 54 economies in 2014.
But Middle East investors have been noticeably quiet, accounting for less than 1 percent of FDI in Africa – and what money they do apply is typically in fellow Arab states in North Africa.
Ibrahim, who last year sealed a tie-up with private equity firm TPG to invest in Africa via his $500m private equity fund Satya Capital, says despite their geographical advantage and historic ties, Gulf investors have it too easy at home to be bothered with Africa.
“They’ve had a very easy life here in the Middle East, where policies of governments are skewed to help them. When they go out there in the cold they have to compete against other people and probably they are a bit lazy,” Ibrahim says. “There’s a great opportunity in Africa and the return on investment in Africa is wonderful. Our brothers here need to pull up their socks and show us what they can do.
“Everyone [in the GCC] is excited about Iran now - that’s, what, 60 million people; there is 1 billion people [in Africa]. It’s really a great opportunity for people to invest but they have to deal with international rules.”
He does, however, accept that there are multiple challenges to doing business in Africa, not least regulation. Child labour, women’s rights, violence against women in the workplace and protection of the environment are other issues he is attempting to address.
Ibrahim made his estimated $1.1bn fortune selling Celtel to the Kuwaiti telecom now known as Zain in a landmark $3.4bn deal in 2005. (It was sold again to Bharti Airtel in 2010).
While the record pace at which Africa has adopted mobile phones and the internet has brought admirable advantages to its citizens, economically, politically and in education, Ibrahim accepts that it also has created a degree of inequality.
“Clearly there’s a divide,” he says. “It’s not just a question of ownership of the handsets or access, because over 50 percent of people have access to it; there’s a question of the bandwidth - you need enough bandwidth in order to speed up communication, be able to download, stuff like that. This is a problem.”
In most cases, African governments either do not have available revenues to fund the latest communication technology, at least outside the capital, or the required infrastructure has not been prioritised. Ibrahim, who has invested in a social enterprise called O3b, which has launched multiple satellites about 8,000km above the Earth that have brought large bandwidth capabilities to remote areas, says global giants such as Google and Facebook need to take partial responsibility for developing the infrastructure that will ultimately boost their profits.
“I think the big tech companies really have not played their role in that because it’s intrinsic to their business. They were able to have a free ride in Europe and elsewhere because other telecom companies put the infrastructure [and] they came and put their layers on top of that. That’s not the job in Africa,” he says. “When we entered mobile communication in Africa, we had to put our own infrastructure because there’s no microwave - in developed countries you acquire that from the incumbent - the fixed line operator - and just overlay the mobility layer on top of that. In Africa we had to do it … but still we were successful. So this argument I’m always telling our friends at Microsoft, at Google, Facebook, whatever, you guys need to do something about this.”
It is self-evident that Ibrahim is an advocate for equality. He may be among the wealthiest Arabs globally, but he is also one of the most generous. Having signed Warren Buffett and Bill Gates’ Giving Pledge, Ibrahim has promised to give away at least half of his wealth. And philanthropy is another target on the Ibrahim dart board. Or, more precisely, his disappointment in the lack of it in the Middle East.
“I think we need … to change our culture in the region here. At the moment, philanthropy in this part of the world means you look after your cousin if he’s not doing well or the children of your sister, and if you go beyond that then you build a mosque,” he says.
“Philanthropy really is helping people who you don’t even know their names; you don’t even know where they live. It’s the ability to really think humanely about the wider humanity beyond your family, beyond your village, beyond your town, beyond your country. That is the state of mind people need really to develop.
“It’s a pity. As I understand Islam, Islam is really about generosity, whether material or emotional, about really being a good human being. While our friends in the region here are always proud of being good Muslims, I see more good Muslims actually in America and in Europe than in the region here. [They] are not Muslims but actually they’re much better Muslims than our Muslims here, which is very sad. Look at what Germany is doing to the refugees, and look at many of the countries here and what they’re doing to our own refugees and you have to wonder.
“It’s time for us to go back and think who we are here and what we’re doing. We lived in this mess for such a long time that we think we are the best nation ever created and it’s time really to question that and at least try to be.”
We can only wonder what the world would be like if all countries were run by the likes of Ibrahim.
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I know Dr. Mo Ibrahim personally. Truly one of the most genuine and caring business leaders and human beings of our time. A real example for the rest of us to follow. Keep up the great work Dr. Mo!
I have never met Mo Ibrahim. but this article makes me feel that I am with him.
We need such people who are genuine and understand the politics and business and have an open mind.
Europe has accepted thousands of refugees, what about our brothers in Middle East? Time to think.