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February 3, 2020updated 05 Mar 2020 6:15pm

Mo Ibrahim: ‘We invested in Africa…I made embarrassing amounts of money’

By Alec Marsh

Mo Ibrahim is giving much of his fortune back to his home continent, as well as encouraging responsible governance along the way. Where does he think Africa will be in 2050? Alec Marsh hears finds out

Mo Ibrahim is dressed in a single-breasted navy pinstripe suit and wears the smile of somebody who sees the brighter side of life. He is 73 and walks with a slight stoop. We are meeting to discuss the future of Africa, the continent where this Sudanese-born businessman and philanthropist earned the lion’s share of his £900 million fortune in telecoms, and where he has been working for more than a decade to promote good governance.

In 2007 he launched a $5 million prize for African leaders who governed democratically and demonstrated excellence in office.

The move was lauded by Nelson Mandela, Bill Clinton and Kofi Annan, and his prize committee includes former president of Ireland Mary Robinson and Graça Machel, the Mozambican politician and widow of Mandela. In addition to the prize, Ibrahim has established a foundation that surveys the quality of governments across the 54 African nations.

It is headquartered in London – where we meet – and measures everything from democracy to quality of services. ‘We need to monitor and measure,’ he tells me. ‘Without monitoring and measuring, how can we check that our policies are working?’

I begin by asking Ibrahim for his assessment of the continent now, 60 years exactly after the rapid era of decolonisation heralded by Harold Macmillan’s ‘Wind of Change’ speech delivered in Cape Town in February 1960.

‘The following 30 years up to the Nineties… that was not a great era for Africa,’ he starts. ‘The decolonialisations were happening at a quick, fast rate.’ (He slaps his hands together in a display of finality.) Flags were designed, he says, national anthems composed, and ‘a respected general or leader of a tribe’ was put in office, with the finishing touch being a celebration where ‘somebody from the royal house’ handed over the flags.

‘It’s difficult for countries to be born through surgical operation, because governments need institutions and institutions need to be built,’ he concludes as our coffee arrives. ‘Unfortunately, there was no good preparation for the independence process itself.’

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And we know the results. By 1970 there were around 18 dictators installed across the continent – and many ruled for decades to come. ‘That was the golden time for military coups,’ smiles Ibrahim. ‘That was spring time for generals.’

Then matters got worse during the ‘chess game’ of the Cold War, where African countries ‘were squares on the board’. ‘There was no moral requirement or governance requirement to decide who are our friends or our foes,’ he says. ‘Either you are for me or against me and that’s it! And you could be a killer, a dictator, a thief, but you’re our guy so it doesn’t matter. That was the scramble for influence, for military bases, raw materials between the superpowers.’

Most will be familiar with this, but something in Ibrahim’s delivery cuts through the familiarity. And what he says next is astonishing. ‘That was a very bad time, and in some aspect it could have been worse than the era of colonisation,’ he announces. ‘Because whatever the ills and injustices of the colonisation system, there was always the public opinion and the human rights groups in the colonial country which could force reasonable behaviour. When there were excesses, people stood up. That was lost also, because there was no constituency for human rights to stand up for you.’

The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, therefore, was particularly good news in Africa – and the continent, according to Ibrahim, is still reaping the harvest: ‘Democracy is now well rooted in Africa. If you watch any elections in Africa now, you will find people queuing since dawn in the heat and the rain for the right to vote. People are delighted to have a voice. If you looked at the percentages of people who bother to vote in Africa and Europe, you would be surprised.’ Indeed, average turnout in elections in countries such as Ethiopia (90 per cent) to Rwanda (97 per cent) and South Africa (76 per cent) indicates numbers that we would be delighted with in Europe or the US.

Fine China

Another unforeseen benefit of the end of the Cold War has been the emergence of China. ‘When you have a limited number of buyers your bargaining power is weak, really,’ he says. ‘The emergence of China as a major player and trade partner in the market created a buzz in the marketplace, because it helped stabilise and improve the price of commodities… things really started to improve in Africa over the last 25 years or so based on that.’

All these decades on, therefore, Africa has ‘to a large extent’ overcome the poisonous legacy of colonialism – one which saw some 10,000 polities arranged into around 45 artificial states. But big challenges remain. The most significant is demographics: the sheer, eye-boggling number of young people in Africa. ‘It is a continent of young people, essentially,’ states Ibrahim. His foundation says that Africa’s population has increased by 26 per cent over the past decade to reach 1.25 billion. Of these, 60 per cent are under 25. There are almost as many people under 25 in Africa as there are in the entire populations of Europe and the US combined.

‘Youth is a major issue for us,’ he declares. ‘We need to handle it. It’s urgent, because if we don’t handle it we will have a major problem on our hands. It can create social unrest; it can create conflicts. Too many young people without jobs – and without hope – they can be [drawn] to any extremist ideology.’ He references extremist groups such as Boko Haram, and adds: ‘Or they can end up dead in the Mediterranean. We don’t want that.’

The problem, says Ibrahim, is that ‘African families pro-duce too many children’. But it’s understandable, he notes: in the absence of a social security net, children are the people’s ‘insurance policy’ in old age. As a result, millions more Africans are coming into the workforce each year, and they need jobs – they need hope. ‘What are we going to do with all our young people?’ asks Ibrahim. ‘Clearly we need to create jobs. What creates jobs? Investment.’

Both of those need good, stable governments. Furthermore, Africa’s education systems need updating – technical schools in particular to train workers capable of building roads, power networks, bridges, hotels, airports’. ‘Who will repair tractors, cars, trains?’ he asks. Then there are soft-ware developers: ‘People’s access to the internet is almost as important as their access to water, electricity et cetera.’

As well as investment, Africa needs trade. Steps have been taken in the creation of a pan-African free-trade zone; in the summer, Nigeria signed up to the Africa Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) and the African Union has launched what it called the ‘operational phase’ of the plan. Ibrahim welcomes this but says it’s critical that the agreement is ratified by Africa’s 54 national parliaments and trade barriers are reduced and tariffs harmonised.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu receives Special Award from Mo Ibrahim at a prize ceremony organised by the Mo Ibrahim Foundation in Dakar on 10 November 2012.

‘That is essential,’ he says. ‘Intra-African trade is something like 13-14 per cent of our trade – it is not acceptable.’ This compares to around 68 per cent in Europe. ‘Many countries are land-locked,’ he says. ‘How do you trade if you don’t trade with your neighbours if you are landlocked? It’s ridiculous, huh? Who’s going to invest there?’

Governments need to be ‘focused like lasers’ on reforming and improving economies and education systems, which is part of Ibrahim’s plan for his foundation – helping to ‘monitor this achievement and produce a scorecard to really motivate’ leaders in governance.

‘Then we need to give this information to the citizens and the government,’ he says, ‘because we hope that the discussion between the citizen and the government will be based on facts.’ He smiles and I laugh. ‘I know. Imagine you can have this type of discussion.’

Democracy at work

Democracy, he says, ‘is still a work in progress’. But not just in Africa. ‘I don’t think democracy and the full participation of citizens is something that can be achieved overnight,’ Ibrahim notes. ‘We learn how to practise democracy the more we practise democracy. It is very sad for us to see the fraying of the liberal democracy order of the West, because that shakes people’s belief in democratic values.’

I note that since 2007, when the annual $5 million Ibrahim Prize for governance was instituted for outgoing heads of government in Africa, it’s only been awarded five times, most recently in 2017 to the former president of Liberia, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. Is there something wrong with Africa’s politicians that in seven out of 12 years they’ve not be able to award it?

‘Look,’ he says. ‘This is a prize for excellence. The problem with that is not that our criteria are too onerous. Excellence is rare, unfortunately. Everybody asks me this question and my answer is: let us assume we are going to offer this prize for European leaders as well. How many years would I have been able to give the prize?’

It’s a fair point. I ask if he would consider opening up the Ibrahim Prize to the rest of the world. We could have regional contests, perhaps. He laughs. ‘Honestly, it is a sad statement about the era and the age we are living through,’ he confides. ‘To try to search for excellence in leadership becomes such a difficult task. Unfortunately we end up with politicians offering everything to get elected and then nothing happens.’

But things are happening in Africa, he says. ‘Governance is better,’ he asserts. ‘Since we started this we have found that two-thirds of African people live now in better-governed countries than ten years ago.’ Indeed, there are good leaders, too, he says, such as President Paul Kagame of Rwanda (ineligible for the prize because he’s still in government).

Africa is not immune to forces ranging across the world, though. ‘For one reason or other this rise of populism, tribalism, is a new global phenomenon, and we need to think why it is happening. It’s everywhere.’ As to its causes, he points to inequality, but also economic change. ‘Whenever there are new economic shocks there are winners and losers,’ he says, noting that technological advances accelerate the pace of change and also increase our awareness of it.

On the rise

Where does he think Africa will be in 2050? ‘I think we’ll be in a much better place than where we are now. We have the opportunity to be a really serious participant in the world economic activity. But if we don’t act, there’s always a danger of us falling into disruption and civil unrest.’

He declares himself an optimist, and places his trust in the new generation of young people. ‘This African young generation is far more dynamic,’ he declares. ‘They have a much better grasp of the world around us.’

He points to the months of peaceful demonstrations that presaged the end of the 30-year rule of Sudan’s dictator Omar al-Bashir last April, in the face of the military machinery of the state. ‘For unarmed people to face all this and topple that regime is amazing. Honestly, I didn’t expect that,’ he says, gladness in his voice. ‘I thought I knew Sudan. I discovered that I didn’t really know it that well. The young people really surprised me. That gave me hope. Those people are far better-educated, more demanding and more disciplined than our generation. And that is the future of Africa, I think.

Mo Ibrahim reception for Kofi Annan photographed by Wolf Marloh on 24/10/2007 at 18:52:27.
All rights reserved. No unauthorised use may be made.

’How does he advise Spear’s readers to get involved, as investors or philanthropists? ‘Start to think of Africa as a normal place with normal people,’ he declares. ‘Africa is about 11 miles away from Europe. We share in humanity. The climate crisis has one silver lining in making everybody understand that our fate as human beings is linked.’

And Africa is open for investment. ‘We invested in Africa, that’s why I have the foundation,’ he states, ‘because I made embarrassing amounts of money.’ (Ibrahim sold his African telecoms provider Celtel in 2005 for $3.4 billion.) ‘I still invest in Africa. I don’t invest anywhere else. It is good.’ He recalls that at Celtel he took three African governments to court in their own countries for breach of contract and won each case. ‘My question is, can you do that in China or India?’

Ultimately, we in the West need open our minds to what Africa is today. ‘People need to get out of old Tarzan movies and these old clichés about Africa – it’s just a normal place. The only thing different about African people,’ he adds, deadpan, ‘is that they are more fun. And they play better football.’ He laughs. ‘That is the only difference. And we run faster also.’

Read more from the Spear’s Africa edition

Meet Jack Ma’s favourite African start-up

Why diamond mining in Africa is a double-edged sword

Why the future of the global economy is African

‘Over the next 50 years this is where you should be putting your money’

This is the start of a crucial decade for Africa

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