In a display that shocked the audience into silence, Sudan-born telecoms billionaire Mo Ibrahim accused a conference of leading businessmen and African investors of accepting bribes, and said that business in Africa needs to stand up to local governments.
In a display that shocked the audience into silence, Sudan-born telecoms billionaire Mo Ibrahim accused a conference of leading businessmen and African investors of accepting bribes and said that business in Africa needs to stand up to local governments.
Speaking at the Private Equity in Africa summit in London this morning, Ibrahim told the gathered business leaders that before complaining about widespread corruption in Africa they needed to examine their own business practices. 'The government doesn't bribe itself. Someone bribes the government. And some of these guys are standing here. Am I correct?' he told a crowded but completely silent auditorium.
The conference audience might have felt they were getting more than they bargained for. 'A big problem, ladies and gentlemen, is that you're silent, and that's not good enough,' he told the hushed crowd at one point.
'Are we happy with this status of corporate governance?' he asked. 'I'm not happy,' he continued, citing widespread tax avoidance, mispricing, corruption and other illegal business practices on the continent.
Telecoms billionaire Mo Ibrahim
He also demanded greater transparency from business in Africa — particularly when it comes to oil and gas contracts. The only reason for a business to agree to signing a multi-billion dollar deal in secret is if bribes are being accepted he argued, saying that 'the business community needs to stand up to this.'
Whether it comes to combating corruption, or promoting improved regional integration through the African Union, Ibrahim believes that African business needs to take a more active role. He accused businessmen of being overly timid in their dealings with government. 'You're a great source of power and you're not using it, because many people are afraid of upsetting government,' he said.
Ibrahim, who made his $1.1bn fortune through Celtel, the mobile phone company he sold in 2005 for $3.4 billion, has certainly tried to put these beliefs into practice.
The Mo Ibrahim Foundation publishes an annual index of African governance and offers a $5 million prize — the world's largest individual prize — for African politicians who have not only excelled in office but (and here's the tricky part) have also stood down voluntarily. No one was awarded the prize this year, and there have only been three winners since 2008.
Africa was not his only focus at this morning's conference — he also expressed his growing unease at rising levels of inequality throughout the world. 'Countries are getting richer, but citizens are not,' he said, and 'if we don't pay attention to that, it'll come back and bite us,' he warned.
'I have a feeling that the collapse of the Soviet Union and communism was not a good thing for capitalism — people became complacent' he said.
This level of self-reflection and unease is not what you might expect from one of Africa's most successful capitalists — but that makes his warnings all the more important, and his recommendations all the more welcome.
Read more from Sophie McBain