A self-made billionaire, Mo Ibrahim was in 2008 named as Britain’s most influential black person. Now he’s working to inspire transparency in African government by giving away millions to the continent’s leaders. But is it inspired philanthropy? Or an elaborate form of bribery?
Where would you find Mary Robinson dancing with Kofi Annan? The first black female British cabinet minister bopping with a couple of Nobel prize winners? Angélique Kidjo getting down with the former head of SG Warburg and several recently retired heads of state? The answer is Alexandria, where all of the above were assembled at the end of last year to celebrate the award of the largest prize in history, the Mo Ibrahim Prize for Achievement in African Leadership. Usually said to be worth $5m, the prize actually offers $500,000 a year for 10 years, plus $200,000 a year for life subsequently, all without strings; plus a potential $200,000 annually for 10 years to be spent on useful projects. The Mo Ibrahim award has only been in existence for two years and, despite being larger than the Nobel prize, is still not very well known. The telecoms billionaire behind it is even less so.
A Sudanese-born former BT engineer, Ibrahim set out from his dining room in West Hampstead in London to create and sell two highly successful companies, making a personal fortune in the process and turning many people into millionaires. The Forbes Rich List puts his wealth at $2.5bn, he appears regularly at the top of lists of influential black Britons, and Nelson Mandela, Bill Clinton and Kofi Annan speak admiringly of his vision. The man himself insists he’s just an engineer who happened to work hard, be in the right place at the right time and have a reasonable amount of common sense.
His latest venture entails nothing less than the re-branding of Africa and the generating of pressure for better, less corrupt governments on the continent. He complains that, “All we hear about Africa in the west is Darfur, Zimbabwe, Congo, Somalia, as if that is all there is. Yet there are 53 countries in Africa, and many of them are doing well.” The party his foundation threw in Alexandria at the end of last year was characteristic of the man: a mix of gravitas (many of the most important figures in Africa were in attendance) and unstuffiness. When Youssou N’Dour sang “7 Seconds” everyone danced, from the ex-president of Mozambique to the director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency.
Television coverage of the ceremony, hosted by Benin singing star Angélique Kidjo and punctuated by music, was beamed across the continent. Hadeel Ibrahim, Mo’s 25-year-old daughter and the executive director of his foundation, told me: “This is an opportunity for young Africans to hear and see good things about themselves. My parents grew up with the heroes of independence, but half the continent wasn’t alive then. There hasn’t been a lot to inspire confidence since the early 80s. People internalise what they hear and see about themselves – and this is a night that celebrates excellence and achievement.”
Changing the perceptions of an entire continent might seem to be a rather large ambition. But Ibrahim has already had a hand in one revolution. He sold mobile phones into Africa at a time when most of the large operators were refusing to do business there, so helping to create the fastest growing mobile-phone market in the world, one where phones have become a force for political freedom as well as trade.
A few weeks after the party in Alexandria, I met Ibrahim again in Monaco. He commutes between a hotel suite in the principality and Mayfair, where his foundation has its offices and he shares a five-bedroom house with his wife Hania, who was, until her recent retirement, a consultant radiologist in the NHS. She is now setting up a breast cancer hospital in Khartoum. As well as Hadeel, the Ibrahims also have a grown-up son, Hosh, an actor.
I have some sympathy for Hania, who calls her husband during our interview to say she’s arrived in Spain. If I were a billionaire or married to one, I don’t think I would spend a lot of time in this rather soulless penthouse suite, at the end of a long corridor, with its tea- and coffee-making facilities. Sitting here in the failing light, I feel that the term “tax exile” no longer seems to be an oxymoron.
Ibrahim is low key and charming; it is, in fact, quite difficult to find anyone with a bad word to say about him. Some Africa experts query the work of his foundation, but no one criticises his personal manner and style. A red monogrammed MI on his shirt, around the stomach area, is the only obviously flashy thing about him. He smokes a pipe and drinks black coffee during the interview, and although he confesses to a love of red burgundy and a partiality to the Michelin-starred restaurants within walking distance of his room, he doesn’t seem that interested in the trappings of wealth.
Ibrahim was born in Sudan in 1946 and describes himself as Nubian. “It’s nice,” he explains, “to have something to fall back on, to know where you came from. I love the music and the culture. It gives me a kind of peace.” Educated at the Nubian school in Alexandria, then at the faculty of engineering, he worked for the national telecoms company in Khartoum before moving to Britain with Hania in 1974 to study for a masters in electrical engineering at Bradford. He followed this with a PhD at Birmingham, where he also taught, specialising in the then-unfashionable field of mobile communications. His pioneering academic work involved the reuse of radio frequencies.
“Mobile communications had been around for a long time,” he explains, “but always as a limited market, constrained by the radio spectrum.” Control of radio waves allowed one channel to be used by many people, which is what cellular means. “I found the work thrilling and absorbing. I certainly had no idea it was going to make me a lot of money.”
In 1983, BT lured him away from academia to be the technical director of its infant company, Cellnet (now O2). It proved to be a frustrating experience, thanks to BT’s failure to grasp the potential of the new technology, and he spent six years struggling with committees, infighting and lack of investment.
“BT didn’t appreciate the opportunity it had. I always say that Vodafone was a great success made by BT, actually. BT should have generated Vodafone.”
Eventually he’d had enough, and resigned. “What do you do if you’re an executive who resigns? You declare yourself a consultant.” He formed MSI (Mobile Systems International), designing technical specifications for operators: “The aim was to use the minimum amount of hardware to produce superior, interference-free coverage. Operators were spending billions, and if I could save them 10% on their network then I was saving hundreds of millions. So we can charge what we like.”
By the time he sold MSI to Marconi for $916m in early 2000, the company had 17 international subsidiaries and 800 employees, the vast majority of whom were engineers, who among them owned 30% of the shares – which Ibrahim is proud, in a pre-share-owning culture, of having cajoled and otherwise persuaded them to buy.
Before the sale, he had established a subsidiary. “I noticed – we noticed – that there was a big scramble for licences everywhere, and countries had started to charge large sums of money to operators. The one place on earth where licences were available for free was Africa. Nobody wanted to go in.”
Celtel began life in 1998 – an operator rather than a design consultancy – and, from the outset, Ibrahim was determined to run a clean company.
“We knew it wasn’t enough to say we wouldn’t pay a single dollar in bribes; everyone says that. So we agreed that nobody in the company could spend more than $30,000 without the signatures of the entire board.
I told each board member that I would need ‘Their home telephone numbers, home faxes, wife’s telephone numbers, holiday home phone numbers and faxes – and if you have a mistress I would like also to have her phone number.’ Of course, nobody would admit to that.”
Effectively, no one could now pay a bribe. “If any of our chief executives in the field came under pressure, they would have to say: ‘How much do you want? Two million? Three million? I’m going to have to write a request to the board.’ And you know, once it became known that that’s how we do business, there was no pressure.”
The number of mobiles on the continent grew from 7.5m users in 1999 to 76.8m in 2004, an average annual increase of 58%. Richard Dowden, director of the Royal African Society, says:
“You don’t get out of a taxi anywhere in Africa without the driver giving you his mobile number. Walk through a market in Nigeria, and you see women checking the prices of potatoes in the next village. Nomads in Somalia use their mobiles to work out the best time to bring down their animals.”
Ancillary businesses sprang up – kiosks where phones could be charged or airtime bought – and the mobile phone also brought Africa some other, unanticipated benefits. During the elections in Ghana in 2000, radio stations asked members of the public to phone in about irregularities or outbreaks of intimidation; their reports were carried live on air. Stephen Chan, professor of International Relations at SOAS, the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London, argues that it took the government in Zimbabwe all of three months to rig the results of its first election in 2008, because the real results were being transmitted from polling stations by mobile phone faster than they could be faked. Richard Dowden has even speculated that the massacres in Rwanda might not happen now, because they would come to light so much more quickly.
When Celtel was sold for $3.4bn in 2004, the staff shared $500m, and 100 people, most of them African, became millionaires.
Ibrahim himself would have preferred not to sell; he was merely hoping to raise capital, but he accepted shareholder pressure to take the unsolicited offer. Happily, he already had a new project. The idea of a prize for African governance had been brewing for some time, and Hadeel Ibrahim, recently graduated from Bristol university in politics and philosophy, and with a bit of experience working in private equity for Africa, remembers she was “given a desk in the corner of the Celtel office and told to set up a foundation”.
It was, she admits, “the most epic learning curve. We were making it up as we went along. But we did a roadshow around Africa and – it seems amazing now – secured people really quickly.”
Mary Robinson, ex-president of Ireland and former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, joined the eight-member board of the foundation and is one of two members who also sit on the prize-judging committee. (The other is Salim Ahmed Salim, the former secretary general of the Organisation of African Unity, and former prime minister of Tanzania.) She confesses to having had initial doubts. “This seemed to be a very different way of looking at leadership – an incentive rather than my usual approach of holding power to account. And the response in the human rights community was quite sceptical initially. There is a danger of postcolonial countries seeing governance and human rights as western values, because the west has been so lax about recognising rights to food and health. But I liked the fact that the money had been earned in Africa. And I was impressed by Mo’s vision. To lead well is beyond price. The work is also fun, and a great deal of human rights work is really not fun at all.”
Hadeel says that, “People responded partly to the notion of the prize, but also to my father as someone who will get things done. He has great charisma, but it’s more than that, because there’s so much beneath it. Even when I was 16, when I started going to Celtel Christmas parties, I was impressed by how much people wanted to work for him, how far they were prepared to go beyond the call of duty.
“No one works harder than he does. When there’s a delay at an airport, you can see him trying to work out how to improve the system.
I remember once on holiday we were in a traffic jam that cleared suddenly, and he talked about how particles bunch. He engages with everything around him, and he makes you smarter in the process. When I first left university and wanted to work in development, I was quite a tomboy. He’d go on at me to wear nice clothes. He’d say that counts as well, because he believes that people who do serious things take themselves seriously. He wanted me to be the best in every possible way I could – and certainly not self-righteous in a socks-and-sandals way. He enjoys his work and he wants everyone to enjoy it. It’s difficult to talk about your father dispassionately, but it seems to me fitting that he gives a prize for excellence, because he is consumed by the desire for excellence in all he does.”
The first Mo Ibrahim prize, awarded in October 2007, went to Joaquin Chissano, the ex-president of Mozambique, who had brought his country out of the violence and starvation of the 80s, ushering in peace and multi-party democracy and using development money to assist the transition from a Marxist to a market economy. He stood down as president without seeking the third term to which the constitution entitled him, in order to help foster the growth of democratic institutions.
This year’s prize went to Festus Mogae, former president of Botswana, whose country was already one of Africa’s success stories when he came to power. The chairman of the judges, Kofi Annan, praised Mogae for ensuring the continued prosperity and stability of his country even in the face of an HIV/Aids pandemic and despite the mineral wealth (Botswana is rich in diamonds) that has so often proved a curse elsewhere in Africa. Botswana has an average annual income of $14,000 per person – which makes it a middle-ranking country globally. Mogae accepts ruefully that Botswana shows what all Africa might, with better leadership, have become.
There is, of course, some irony in what Ibrahim is doing. The businessman who prides himself on never having paid a bribe now seems to be offering a bribe to political leaders. Criticism of the prize comes both from those who think that it’s too big (why so much money for leaders who are only doing what they’re elected to do?) and too small (it’s not actually enough to deter corruption; $500,000 a year would be small change for, say, a Nigerian politician).
Ibrahim’s response is that the prize offers leaders an option that didn’t previously exist. In the past, a departing African leader could look forward only to “relative poverty, term extension, or corruption”. The Mo Ibrahim prize cannot compete with the material rewards of top-slicing mining contracts or diverting aid. But it can go some way to replicating the book contracts and lecture tours and non-executive directorships that are on offer to ex-leaders in the west.
In Alexandria, several African journalists were extremely interested in how Mogae planned to spend his money, a line of questioning that visibly irked the normally urbane Ibrahim. “I do not ask you how you spend your salary,” he said testily to one. “Half a million over 10 years would not be a large sum of money for the executive of a western company. It’s not even the salary of a CEO. Tony Blair is paid $500,000 for one speech and no one asks how he is going to spend it. We do not query the giving of money to people who already earn well. Besides, this is not public money. It’s not at the expense of anything else. It’s my money. Sorry, but I’m a crazy guy.”
Later, in Monaco, Ibrahim said to me:
“I’m a little bit surprised by the fuss about the money, compared to, say, the Nobel prize. The fact that African leaders are able to steal billions of dollars doesn’t mean that those who don’t shouldn’t have any money.”
The other persistent concern raised about the prize is that the committee might run out of candidates. African ex-leaders remain a rare species, untainted ones even more so. When an African journalist asks about this in Alexandria, Ibrahim says dismissively that he is surprised: the question is usually raised by westerners. Africans, he says, smiling, should realise that there are so many potential great African leaders that the continent has even been able to lend one to the United States.
His more measured response when I ask him again in Monte Carlo is that the committee simply won’t award the prize if there is no suitable candidate in any particular year – “which will send an important message of its own”.
Increasingly, though, the prize is not the main focus of the Mo Ibrahim Foundation’s work. The money grabs the headlines and offers the possibility of a glamorous televised party with some of the continent’s finest musicians. But the Mo Ibrahim Index of African Governance, originally conceived of as a way of helping the committee to determine the prize, has since “evolved into something in itself”, according to Hadeel Ibrahim. “All of us in the foundation would now say the index is the most important aspect of what we do. Only one person can benefit from the prize, but 700 million Africans can engage with the index and benefit from it.”
The index, which ranks countries according to 58 criteria in five main categories, has also provoked its share of controversy. “There is a very healthy debate about it inside the foundation,” Mary Robinson says, “and we are very much in the mood that there is room for improvement.”
One dispute concerns the weighting of the various criteria. “Coming from a business background, I tend to value economic development very highly,” Ibrahim says. “I take the view that if you make people rich, they will find a way to educate their kids and get healthcare; whereas Mary Robinson, for example, will say that without human rights, without the emancipation of women, there is no hope. As a compromise we currently give all five of our main components equal weight, but that does lead to anomalies.”
Gabon, for example, is ranked eighth in this year’s index, despite being one of the most corrupt countries in the world. “With 58 parameters, it’s quite possible for Gabon to fail badly on seven or eight counts,” Ibrahim accepts. “But if there is good infrastructure – it’s a small country with only 1 million people – and they have enough money coming from oil to fund a health service and education, plus there is no fighting, then they score. Then people say: ‘Why is Gabon so high?’ But I agree – it’s not ideal.”
The other area of debate concerns the authorship of the index, currently in the hands of the political scientist Robert Rotberg at Harvard University. “A criticism we hear very much in Africa,” Ibrahim says, “is: ‘Why Harvard? Why the bloody US? Why don’t Africans do it for Africans?’ We are committed to transferring the work to Africa quite quickly, certainly in two, three, four years. So the index is very much a project in progress.”
Whatever its shortcomings, the index provides ammunition for people to ask questions of their governments. Most UN indices don’t want to be seen comparing one country with another, while the African Peer Review Mechanism, designed to show African governments putting pressure on each other, has only reported on four countries in as many years. “I said to Mbeki: ‘Are you telling me that by the year 2050 you hope to finish?’” Ibrahim says scathingly. “We support the peer review, but we hope they find a way to speed it up, otherwise it is dead.”
Back at the celebrations in Alexandria, Mohamed ElBaradei, director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Nobel Peace Prize laureate and Mo Ibrahim prize judge, sounded a typically independent note. He reminded the audience that 1.4 billion people in Africa still live on less than $1.25 a day, and that poverty in Africa has doubled in the past 20 years. Destitution and poor governance, he warned, tend inexorably towards violence and repression, and “then you end up where I do my work, looking for weapons of mass destruction”.
Corruption is estimated to cost Africa $148bn annually, more than a quarter of the continent’s entire GDP. Karl Ziegler, a banker in Africa for 17 years and a founding member of the anti-corruption group Transparency International in the UK, believes that no amount of aid, debt relief or trade is going to make a difference until the problems of corruption are solved: “Corruption is problem number one, two and three on that continent.”
Ibrahim is irritated, though, that it is always Africans who get the blame. “Africans are not corrupting themselves. For every corrupt leader there are more corrupt businesspeople. Corruption requires western connivance. Europe – finally – began to enact laws against corruption eight or nine years ago. Everywhere I go, I ask: ‘Has anybody been prosecuted? In France? No. Germany? No. Sweden, Norway? No. UK? No. Are you saying that all your companies are OK? You don’t have corruption anywhere? Or is it that you don’t apply the law because you don’t want to disadvantage your companies?’ And then they lecture African leaders!”
The most thoughtful commentators argue that donor pressure won’t rid Africans of their corrupt leaders; only Africans can do that. Nor will aid solve Africa’s economic problems, however necessary it might be in the short term. The only long-term hope for the continent’s economies is business development.
Already Ibrahim has done as much as anyone to stimulate business on the continent. Now, with the prize and the index, he is offering Africans levers they can use to put pressure on their leaders, to ask questions and make demands. It is not altogether surprising that the Mo Ibrahim laureate of 2008, Festus Mogae, says: “I am really grateful to him for having faith in Africa.” It is hard, though, to disagree with what he says next: “I don’t think you should give up just because bad things happen.”