: : Article

The New Yorker -
March 7, 2011


A billionaire battles a continent’s legacy of misrule.


One day last March, students crammed into the Great Hall at the University of Ghana, outside Accra. They filled the plastic chairs set up to face an ornate wooden lectern, and lined the hallways around the auditorium. It was oppressively hot, and a fan was positioned to blow air toward the speaker, Mo Ibrahim, a Sudanese-born billionaire who built one of the first mobile-phone networks on the continent. He stood alone onstage, flanked by four golden floor-to-ceiling columns. His speech was titled “Taking Responsibility—How to Fix the Mess That Africa Is In.”

Ibrahim, who is squat and round, with a flat nose, bulging eyes, and a shiny bronzed head, startled the audience by asking, “Guys, why are we dressed in suits and ties?” He peeled off his jacket and dropped it on the floor. Then he yanked off his tie, and the students cheered. In accented and colloquial English, he went on to criticize both African and Western conventional wisdom.

“We are a very rich continent, the second-largest continent in the world, lush-green, plenty of resources. Everything we have. Yet we are the poorest people on earth. So, rich continent, poor people. After fifty years of independence, I don’t think we can continue to blame the colonialists.” In this speech, as in others, he took care to extoll Africa and its people, noting that, at the time colonialism ended, “this country Ghana, my country Sudan, Egypt, many countries had higher G.D.P.s and income per head than China, than India, than South Korea, than Malaysia, than Singapore.” The problems since are due to “a catastrophic failure of leadership and governance. There is no other explanation. We have had to a very large extent very lousy leadership in Africa: too many dictators, too many megalomaniacs, too many thieves, who bled this continent for their personal and family interest.” He continued, “All those leaders love Western culture when it comes to expensive French wine, expensive American cars, mobile phones, air-conditioning, aircraft, whatever. They love Western culture. When you speak about human rights, they say, ‘No, no, no, no. Those are Western values.’ ”

He spoke for an hour, and then bantered with the audience for an hour and a half. Questioners called him Mo, as everyone does. When he finished, his shirt was soaked with perspiration. The crowd applauded thunderously. Ibrahim is self-confident to the point of arrogance. “It was fantastic,” he recalls, of the response. “The kids never disputed what I was saying: ‘Stop making excuses.’ ”

Ibrahim, who is sixty-four years old, is often hailed as a hero in Africa. His mobile-phone company, Celtel, contributed to the development of civil society across the continent, and he’s now spending the money he earned to try to change the values of the dictators, megalomaniacs, and thieves. Each year, he sponsors the Ibrahim Prize, which bestows five million dollars on an African leader who is elected to office, promotes democracy, does not steal from the people, and cedes power peacefully. Essentially, Ibrahim pays leaders to stay honest. He has also created the Ibrahim Index of African Governance, a numerical evaluation of Africa’s fifty-three governments. If a leader becomes more oppressive and corrupt, or doesn’t invest in education and welcome private investment, his country’s ranking falls. Ibrahim then buys advertisements in all the local newspapers to announce this.

With citizen revolts in Tunisia, Egypt, Sudan, Libya, Algeria, Djibouti, Morocco, and elsewhere, Africa is undergoing perhaps its greatest political convulsion since the end of colonialism, and few private citizens have done as much, or spent as much, in recent years to push for the kind of democracy that people are demanding in the streets. The outpouring for Ibrahim in Ghana, in fact, was an early expression of the desire for political reform that has swept the north of the continent. For decades, well-meaning people have been saying that Africa would be O.K. if it could just get more aid. Ibrahim’s message is different: Africa needs to take responsibility for itself, and it needs to start by jettisoning its awful leaders. “I’m so delighted to see people still have not lost their guts to go out and make a point,” Ibrahim told me in early February. “In this region, that never happened before.”

Ibrahim was in Ghana in part for meetings arranged by ONE, an anti-poverty organization on whose board Ibrahim sits. The group was co-founded in 2008 by Bono, the lead singer of U2, who accompanied Ibrahim. The trip, Bono noted, was one of the rare occurrences when he often passed unrecognized and a member of his entourage was mobbed like a rock star. “People were elbowing me out of the way to get to Mo,” Bono said, laughing. He added that he was dazzled by Ibrahim’s speech. “He refused to talk either up or down to people,” Bono said, comparing Ibrahim to a skilled comedian who “commands attention by saying things in the room no one else will say.”

When Ibrahim left the stage in Ghana, he was surrounded by so many students that he had to be extracted from the crowd and taken to his plane. At the airport, taxi-drivers and baggage handlers shouted, “Mo!” and massed around him. They all wanted to do something that wasn’t possible ten years ago but that is now, in large part because of Ibrahim’s work: snap a picture with their cell phones.

Mohamed Ibrahim was born on May 3, 1946, in Northern Sudan, which was then jointly administered by Egypt and Britain. His family was ethnically Nubian, and they lived in Alexandria, at the edge of the Nile River Delta. Ibrahim’s parents were Muslim, and he was the second of five children, four of them boys. Ibrahim’s father, Fathi, who had only an elementary-school education, worked for a cotton company. His mother, Aida, Ibrahim said, was a homemaker who “believed very strongly in education as a means for improvement. She was relentless in pushing us.” He and his four siblings attended strict Nubian elementary and preparatory schools. He was always near the top of his class, and his heroes were Albert Einstein and Marie Curie. Alexandria University offered him a scholarship, and he studied electrical engineering. All the children graduated from college. Two of his siblings became doctors, one an accountant, and the other a marketing executive.

At Alexandria University, Ibrahim spent his free time reading Marx, Engels, and Hemingway. He identified with leftist leaders who were aligned neither with the United States nor with the Soviet Union: Gamal Abdel Nasser, of Egypt; Patrice Lumumba, of the Congo; Kwame Nkrumah, of Ghana. All were charismatic orators without any background in governing.

When Ibrahim graduated, in 1968, he moved to Khartoum, the capital of Sudan, to work for the national telephone company, Sudan Telecom. He travelled frequently for the firm, mostly to England, and grew increasingly irritated by the company’s inefficiency and aversion to risk-taking. Working for the state convinced him that state-led socialism was impractical. In 1973, he married Hania Fadl, whom he had known since childhood. She had graduated from Alexandria University a year after he did and went on to become a doctor with Sudan’s Ministry of Health. The following year, Ibrahim received a graduate scholarship to study mobile communications at the University of Bradford, in England. Hania, who kept her maiden name, received a scholarship to attend St. Bartholomew’s Hospital, in London. Over the next thirty years, she became a leading breast-cancer specialist with the National Health Service. They have a son, Hosh, thirty-five, and a daughter, Hadeel, twenty-seven.

Ibrahim got his master’s and then moved to the University of Birmingham, where he earned a Ph.D. in 1981. He had no teaching duties, so he spent countless hours in the laboratory, studying what happens when a signal is exchanged between a transmitter and a receiver that are not positioned in a straight line. In the eighties, he and his team of engineers did pioneering work in the prediction of whether radio-wave signals were strong enough to pierce buildings or go around hills.

In 1983, British Telecom hired him as a technical director, and he was promoted rapidly in BT’s mobile division. Ibrahim’s group designed the first handheld mobile-phone network in the world, but he could not get the attention of senior executives. The company was deeply bureaucratic and worried that mobile sales would undermine a profitable landline business. By late 1989, he had decided that he would never again work for a big company.

Calling himself “a reluctant entrepreneur,” Ibrahim founded a consultancy, Mobile Systems International, that year. Its first office was in the dining room of his London home. Several years later, he recruited a C.E.O. to run the company while he focussed on strategy. In ten years, M.S.I. grew to eight hundred employees and provided advice to companies that developed major mobile-communication networks in North America, Europe, and Japan. During this time, Ibrahim designed and trademarked software, known as Planet, that made transmissions more efficient. It was adopted by Motorola, Siemens, and others. During its first decade, M.S.I. did business in South Africa but nowhere else on the continent. By the late nineteen-nineties, though, Ibrahim was starting to think about beginning something new, and he saw an opportunity for profit. He decided to start a company, called Celtel, that would bring mobile phones to the rest of Africa. He knew that the continent had almost no cellular service, and because there was terrible landline service he would have little competition. Many African countries also offered free licenses to mobile companies willing to invest.

Ibrahim faced enormous obstacles. The roads and rail links were primitive, corruption was common, and electricity was scarce. Many Africans were desperately poor and isolated in rural areas; they appeared to have scant means to climb from poverty.

The banks did not want to invest. The risks, they told Ibrahim, were too steep. There were too many civil wars and too much rapacity. “I think they were very ignorant of what was happening in Africa,” Ibrahim recalls of these early conversations. “Some of their information dated back to old movies. ‘Tarzan,’ maybe. One banker asked, ‘How can you ask us to invest in a country run by Idi Amin?’ I said, ‘He left Uganda fifteen years ago!’ ”

Ibrahim had to seek capital elsewhere. Some funding came from the CDC Group, the investment arm of Britain’s aid agency, and the International Finance Corporation, the private-sector branch of the World Bank. One early investor was Thomas C. Barry, of Zephyr Management, in New York, who says he thought that Ibrahim was “unusual” because he combined an engineering degree with a business résumé: “While Celtel was like a startup, this was a guy who had operated in a Western-style business. He inspired a lot of confidence.” Barry joined his board.

In 2000, Ibrahim sold M.S.I. for six hundred and eighteen million dollars to Marconi, a British electronics company, and focussed on Celtel. He targeted a group of countries in sub-Saharan Africa: Uganda, Malawi, Congo, Gabon, Sierra Leone, and several others. Ibrahim knew that the people his company would cater to didn’t have access to banking services. But if he could sell prepaid credit or scratch cards for two or three dollars, and if the calls were inexpensive, it could develop into a business. Scratch cards had been used in Europe, but Ibrahim popularized them in Africa.

The demand for mobile service exceeded expectations; when the company entered Gabon, in 1999, customers knocked the doors off their hinges trying to get in. Ibrahim again recruited an experienced C.E.O. By 2004, more than ninety per cent of Celtel’s four thousand employees were African; the company provided service to six million customers in thirteen countries. The next year, its revenues reached a billion dollars.

As Celtel expanded, Ibrahim became more convinced that African governments hindered development. One dramatic example came as he tried to do business in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Congo-Brazzaville, two poor countries divided by the Congo River. All calls between the two states had to be routed through Europe because the two governments mistrusted each other. A one-minute call cost a dollar. It took Celtel a year of negotiations to persuade the two nations to establish a microwave link. When they did, the cost of a one-minute call dropped to twenty-eight cents.

Ibrahim also had to deal with extensive government corruption. When confronted by requests for bribes, Ibrahim instructed employees to say, “How much do you want? Two million? Three million?” Employees were told to ask people to submit the request for a payoff in writing, which of course no one would do. To further insure that no one in the company would pay a large bribe, he stipulated that no Celtel employee could spend more than thirty thousand dollars without the approval of the entire board. Celtel was never accused of corruption.

The number of mobile phones in Africa has grown from fewer than four million in 1998 to more than four hundred million today—almost half the population of the continent. The phones have created jobs—presently, the company that Ibrahim started has more than five hundred thousand scratch-card outlets—and infrastructure. Migrant workers who leave home for distant jobs can stay in touch with their families. Businesses can talk to customers and suppliers, and employees in different offices can speak with each other. Farmers now compare prices before selling their produce. The nearest doctors can be located. Mobile banking has been introduced. During elections, people have taken pictures documenting vote fraud or intimidation with their mobile phones and sent text messages about possible improprieties. “That’s all happening because the platform exists in the form of mobile phones, which Mo, probably more than anyone in sub-Saharan Africa, has helped put in place,” Rajiv Shah, the administrator of U.S.A.I.D., says.

In 2004, Ibrahim announced that he planned to take Celtel public, but six firms bid to own the company outright. Ibrahim told me that he didn’t want to sell. He wanted it to be “the first African company to have a primary listing on London’s stock exchange.” His investors, however, could not resist the allure of a three-billion-four-hundred-million-dollar offer, made by MTC Kuwait, in 2005. A hundred of Celtel’s employees became millionaires. Ibrahim took his money—Forbes estimates his personal fortune to be more than two billion dollars—and left Celtel to do something new. He started the Mo Ibrahim Foundation the following year.

“Throughout my life, I always believed in civil society,” Ibrahim said to me one November afternoon in his three-bedroom penthouse at the Carlton Hotel in Cannes, France. He had played golf that morning, and he was wearing a long-sleeved blue club shirt, jeans, and white sneakers. It was raining, so he could not venture out on his terrace, overlooking the beach and the Bay of Cannes, to smoke his pipe. A chilled, unopened bottle of Domaine Ott rosé, sent up by the hotel management, was on the coffee table. He had read his three daily newspapers, Al-Hayat, the International Herald Tribune, and the Financial Times, and had tossed them on the yellow Persian carpet. His cell phones rang regularly. An open laptop on the dining-room table was surrounded by piles of invitations: to meet with African business and government leaders; to attend a U.N. conference on drugs, crime, and human trafficking; to go to a “green revolution” confab in Geneva hosted by the Gates and the Rockefeller Foundations.

Ibrahim owns a one-bedroom apartment in Monte Carlo and is a resident of Monaco, where he lives nine months of the year. (Switzerland offered the same tax benefits, but not the golf, mild weather, and proximity to Africa.) In addition to his apartment in Monaco, which was being renovated, he also owns an apartment in Cairo and a town house in London, which he occupies no more than fifty nights each year, in order to protect his foundation’s tax status. He owns another home in Khartoum, where his wife spends ninety per cent of her time. With the help of the foundation, she constructed a large hospital there and established a breast-cancer treatment center, which their son, Hosh, runs. Ibrahim, however, is an open critic of the Sudanese government and is not popular with the authorities there. He has not visited the country in more than seven years. He sees his wife infrequently, but they talk on the phone every day.

After asking whether I minded if he smoked, he pulled out a black leather pouch, filled a pipe with tobacco, and lit up. “Governance is about managing this place,” he said. “It’s a mess. There is a need to enshrine the rule of law. That is the first step toward building an advanced society.” He sat up on the couch, and began speaking so fast in his accented English that words seemed to collide. “Transparency. Lack of corruption. Human rights of individuals. Building infrastructure. Taking care of education. Health. All these things are pillars of a civil society.” What prevents these, he says, is “lack of good governance.”

One impediment to governance, he explained, was that liberation movements captured many African governments. They took control, created one-party states, and followed a philosophy of “I liberated you. You owe me!” Ibrahim continued, “Then came the Cold War, which was at its highest during the fight for independence. It didn’t matter if you were a dictator or a thief. If you were an ally, then you were a client state.” As a result, the West helped corrupt or repressive tyrants like Mobutu Sese Seko, in Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo), and Daniel arap Moi, in Kenya, stay in power for decades. With assistance from the West, Hosni Mubarak solidified control when he took over Egypt’s government, in 1981.

As early as 2001, at Celtel, Ibrahim began talking about the dangers of weak governments. Salim Ahmed Salim, the former head of the Organization of African Unity, and a member of Ibrahim’s corporate board, recalls that Ibrahim was angered by the governments they encountered. Ibrahim told Salim he wanted to establish a foundation that would celebrate good leaders. On the day he sold the company, he told another Celtel board member and investor, Tsega Gebreyes, a businesswoman from Ethiopia, “Now I have to start thinking about the foundation. We’re going to give the biggest prize ever. Bigger than the Nobel Prize.” Gebreyes co-founded an investment firm with Ibrahim, Satya Capital, which has more than two hundred million dollars to invest in African companies.

In 2006, Ibrahim unveiled the Ibrahim Prize. The aim of the award is to spur African leaders to excel—or at least to insure that they don’t stay in office because they lack a retirement plan. Recipients, who must be outgoing heads of state, receive an award of five million dollars over ten years, and a lifetime grant of two hundred thousand dollars annually. Another two hundred thousand dollars is given annually if they establish a charitable foundation.

For centuries, incentives have been offered for leaders to relinquish power. French kings would welcome and sometimes provide stipends to ousted British royalty in order to reward allegiance or to support a potential rival government. In the twentieth century, refuge has been granted to many murderous dictators. It is done out of loyalty, or compassion, or religious or ideological solidarity, or to buy peace. The government of Saudi Arabia allowed Idi Amin to flee Uganda and settle there in 1980. In return for a generous subsidy from the royal family, Amin agreed to stay out of politics. This January, Saudi Arabia welcomed the Tunisian President, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali.

Ibrahim is doing something different. “We are not dealing with dictators. We are dealing with good people,” he says. In Africa, “You don’t have the option to write books or go on corporate boards. European leaders can become rich after office. African leaders don’t have that option.” Three years ago, after British Prime Minister Tony Blair stepped down, he earned a book advance of eight million dollars (which he donated to charity), and he gets up to two hundred and fifty thousand dollars per lecture. Bill Clinton received fifteen million dollars to write his memoirs. Ibrahim says he wanted to “create an environment” for outstanding African leaders “to have a second life.”

To gain further attention, Ibrahim recruited a prestigious selection committee, which consisted of three Nobel laureates—Kofi Annan, the former U.N. Secretary-General; Mohamed ElBaradei, the former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency and one of the icons of the Egyptian opposition; and the former Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari—plus two distinguished African activists and two foundation board members, Salim and Mary Robinson, the former Irish President and U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights. In February, Annan stepped down as chairman, and was replaced by Salim. The prize-committee board has its own research arm, which prepares monthly reports on potential candidates. Ibrahim has put up all the money personally, he says, because he doesn’t want the prize-givers to be accused of being “stooges.” If an American or “an outsider” expressed critical views, the response might be: “ ‘Who are you to tell us?’ If an African goes and says the same thing, it’s different. No one will tell me it’s not my business. We had to be a true African foundation, not a black face for a white foundation. If we were funded by the British government, for example, how could we stand up and criticize the election process in Zimbabwe?”

The prize was first awarded in 2007, to Joaquim Chissano, the former President of Mozambique. After fighting in his country’s war for independence against Portugal, Chissano became foreign minister in 1975 and then President. In office, he negotiated an end to a sixteen-year civil war. In 1994, he oversaw the country’s first free elections. He championed the ratification of a new constitution, adopted a multiparty system of governance, and welcomed fifteen thousand rebels to join the national Army. A former Marxist, he helped Mozambique become a market economy, and declined to seek a third term as President. Although Mozambique is infested with corruption, Chissano enjoys a reputation for personal probity.

Festus Mogae, of Botswana, won the 2008 prize. He chose to leave office after two terms, encouraged opposition political parties, and adopted an aggressive policy to combat AIDS. I met Mogae—a short, stout, bald man with a cheerful I-don’t-take-myself-too-seriously manner—in November at an Ibrahim-sponsored conference in Mauritius. He was wearing a black Meridien Hotel T-shirt with large letters on the back declaring “DISCOVER ME.” The main purpose of the award, he says, is “to encourage leaders to leave.” Otherwise, even democratically elected ones are tempted, at the end of their terms, to change “the constitution to allow them to stay forever.” The award has helped Mogae establish a local foundation that supports Botswanan students as well as two schools for the blind. One negative effect of the prize, he notes, is that people now know that he is relatively rich. “I leave my cell phone off, because when I turn it on I see sixty calls for help,” he says.

The Ibrahim Foundation has not granted a prize for the past two years. The selection committee believed that no outgoing African head of state deserved it, and the foundation board concurred. “We’re not easy graders,” ElBaradei says. Two prominent leaders who recently left office—John Kufuor, of Ghana, and Thabo Mbeki, of South Africa—were widely thought to be candidates. “The people around the President of Ghana were lobbying,” Mary Robinson says. But committee members did not believe that Kufuor was worthy. Mamphela Ramphele, a foundation board member and fellow South African, thinks that Mbeki was vetoed because he refused to deal with his country’s AIDS epidemic and because he blessed the tyrannical rule of Robert Mugabe, in neighboring Zimbabwe.

The prize has been described as a form of bribery. Geraldine Bedell wrote in Britain’s Observer, “The businessman who prides himself on never having paid a bribe now seems to be offering a bribe to political leaders . . . who are only doing what they’re elected to do.” Ibrahim’s eyes widen as he coolly rejects this claim: “Bribery is usually given under the table. I never heard of bribery given above the table. And what do we get back from them? Why do you want to bribe someone who left office?”

Detractors also note that the prize creates perverse incentives. Good leaders have an incentive to step down, but bad leaders don’t. It’s like a corporate-buyout program limited to the best performers. If the current President of the Ivory Coast, Laurent Gbagbo, had a chance at the prize, might he have peacefully handed over power after losing the election in November—instead of hanging on and inciting a brutal conflict? Perhaps there’s a sum that could persuade Mugabe to spend the rest of his years next to a swimming pool. Ibrahim bridles at the idea. “If somebody would like to do that, they are welcome to go do that. We did not corner the market on prizes or inducements.” He adds that his five-million-dollar prize “is peanuts. What is that to a dictator who’s siphoning billions of dollars? It is totally futile. And I also think it’s immoral.”

Steven Friedman, the director of the Center for the Study of Democracy at the University of Johannesburg and Rhodes University, calls the prize élitist. He charges that it overemphasizes the power of leaders and underemphasizes the power of everyone else. Some countries with heads of state who have been rebuffed—such as Ghana—are far more prosperous and democratic than Mozambique. Ibrahim counters that, in Africa, where civil society is still developing slowly, “the actions of the President are really crucial. There are no checks and balances to control their power”—no independent legislatures or courts. “Don’t say this is élitist. This is a fact of life.”

Perhaps the most common critique of the prize is that the failure to grant one for the past two years has reinforced negative stereotypes of Africa. How can you inspire people to emulate leaders when you don’t single out any for praise? This criticism won’t be remedied anytime soon. A member of the prize committee told me, “It is going to be difficult to find credible candidates to give it to for the next couple of years.” The Ghanaian economist George Ayittey, who later this year will publish a book called “Defeating Dictators,” notes that although nine African dictators held Presidential elections in 2010, there was not a single peaceful transfer of power.

One of the most plausible candidates is Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, of Liberia, the first female head of state in Africa. She was democratically elected, and if she wins reëlection to a second six-year term, this year, she will not be eligible until 2017. Testifying to the allure of the prize, she wrote in a recent memoir that “perhaps I will earn the Mo Ibrahim Prize for Achievement in African Leadership. . . . There’s no reason a woman cannot win soon. I am increasingly looking forward to that chance.”

Ibrahim wanted to base the prize more on science than on his hunches. “I’m a businessman. And I’m an engineer,” he said. “As an engineer, you don’t talk about things. You define them. . . . We wanted to define governance. And we wanted to find out how to measure it.” After reading articles by Robert Rotberg, then the director of the Program on Intrastate Conflict, at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, Ibrahim asked him to design a system to rigorously measure governance in Africa. In 2006, Rotberg and his colleagues combined fifty-seven variables into a ranking. At the end, each African government had a score between one and a hundred. Somalia came in last, at 28.1; Mauritius did the best, at 86.2.

Rotberg continued to work on the index for three years. But, in 2009, he had a falling out with the Ibrahim Foundation, partly because the board wanted his Harvard team to quickly cede control of the index to African scholars and to the foundation. The economist Hania Farhan, a native of Jordan, now works with the African researchers and oversees the index from the foundation’s office on Portman Square, in London. They have expanded to eighty-eight the number of variables that the index examines, and all the variables are given equal weight. Farhan admits that “this is an art as well as a science,” and that some important data are either not available or “patchy.” No comprehensive measure of poverty, for example, exists. To save the Ibrahim Foundation from having to send thousands of people into the field, they use data already gathered by others, such as quality of budget management, as measured by the World Bank; access to clean water, as measured by the World Health Organization; and political oppression, as measured by Amnesty International and the U.S. State Department.

Critics argue that it doesn’t make sense to give equal priority to every one of the categories. Is “orderly transfer of power” or “freedom of expression” really worth the same as “immunization against measles”? Partha Dasgupta, an Indian-born emeritus professor of economics at the University of Cambridge, believes that so many categories inevitably “blend into others” and there will be “double counting.” He proposes that the index eliminate some categories, and that its creators develop a methodology for weighting them based on a defined set of priorities.

Lately, the debate over priorities within the foundation board has accelerated, because the index’s recent scores show that Tunisia was the eighth-best-governed country in Africa, and Egypt the ninth. Both scored well in measures of infrastructure, education, and health care—while scoring poorly on political participation and human rights. Speaking of the people’s revolt in North Africa, Mary Robinson says, “I think events there, and the influence on other countries, strengthen the case for giving more weight to these issues.” Ibrahim acknowledges the imperfections in his system: “You can fail in one area—human rights and corruption—and yet succeed.” But, he says, “it is not an index of democracy. It is an index of everything.”

Regardless of how the scoring works, the index is profoundly influential. It has “a huge impact” on how aid is distributed, the U.S.A.I.D. administrator Shah says. He relies on the index as a “serious determinant” in investing U.S.A.I.D.’s six-and-a-half-billion-dollar African-aid budget. He adds that the social impact within Africa may be even greater because it encourages countries to compete with each other. This, Shah adds, “is just brilliant.” For example, Kenya was unhappy when it ranked twenty-seventh while neighboring Tanzania came in sixteenth. Rwanda complained about its ranking while, this past fall, the President of Sierra Leone spoke before the U.N. and, citing the index, boasted about his “significant leap forward in democratic governance.” Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, a former finance and foreign-affairs minister of Nigeria, and today a managing director for the World Bank, overseeing all of Africa, says, “Among African policymakers, no one is not aware of the Ibrahim Index and Prize.” When the index appears, each fall, the media in most African nations report the results. ElBaradei calls the index “a way to name and shame—but also to recognize achievement.”

The index has helped to change the conversation about how the West should assist developing countries. It used to be all about money; now it’s also about governance and private-sector growth. Joaquim Chissano told me that the prize and the index “make people speak about issues of governance.” And there has been a change in anti-poverty organizations as well. “I met Mo because our organization started to realize the importance of economic growth,” Bono says. “Activists like me tend to underestimate this.” The private sector was often seen as exploitative. Nonprofit organizations focussed on how much money government spent, not on how effectively government spent it.

There is, of course, no unanimity about aid priorities or even the importance of foreign aid. Jeffrey Sachs, an economist at Columbia University, founded the Millennium Promise, in 2005, with the aim of slashing extreme poverty by 2015, a goal endorsed by nearly two hundred nations. This goal would be achieved, in large measure, by boosting foreign aid. Sachs wrote in his 2005 book, “The End of Poverty,” that “Africa’s governance is poor because Africa is poor.” Ibrahim emphasizes the opposite: Africans are poor because their governance is poor.

People accept Ibrahim’s bluntness on the subject of aid, as with so many other issues, because of his charm, Mary Robinson says. His friend Mohamed ElBaradei adds, “They know he does not have a hidden agenda. He’s not trying to make money. He’s not running for office.” ElBaradei adds that Ibrahim “has one foot in the East and one foot in the West. He is in many ways a contrarian in Western society, but also in Eastern society.”

In mid-November, Ibrahim organized a conference in Mauritius. His office paid for a hundred rooms at two hotels and bought airfare for the participants. Board members are paid thirty thousand dollars to attend four board meetings annually. Before the gathering, Ibrahim explained his immodest goals: “We hope to have a good conversation and try to reach some clear ideas about how to approach regional integration in Africa, and how we can ignite the imagination of the people in Africa.” He was scheduled to fly from London on Wednesday afternoon, but he missed the flight. Ibrahim arrived late Thursday and overslept on Friday. (“We’re waiting for Mo” is a running joke among associates.)

At the convention center on Saturday night, Ibrahim stood below a large sign that read “THE MO IBRAHIM FOUNDATION.” He began to talk extemporaneously about the continent’s abundant resources and poor governance. He then noted that no one had won his prize for two years, saying, simply, “This is a prize for excellence in leadership.” Ibrahim described a press conference that had been held after he announced that no award would be given in 2010. “Journalists asked me, with a smirk on their faces, ‘Were you guys saying there are no good African leaders?’ I said, ‘Hold on. This prize is for excellent leadership, for people who transformed their countries. I will go back to my prize committee and recommend that this prize, which was not offered this year, will be offered to the European leader who came to office in the last ten years and transformed his or her country. Can you please give me a name?’ ” Ibrahim smiled broadly as the audience burst into applause.

He went on to describe a new foundation fellowship. Every year for the next ten years, three Mo Ibrahim fellows will be chosen, to be mentored by, and work directly for, the heads of three institutions—the African Development Bank, the World Trade Organization, and the Economic Commission for Africa. Each fellow will be paid a six-figure salary by the foundation. These organizations, he said, “eat our lunch and we don’t know how these guys fix things. We want to put our spies in there!” Again, the audience laughed, and applauded.

The program, which was televised in more than a dozen countries, moved along so briskly that it ended ten minutes before the appointed hour. This prompted Angélique Kidjo, one of the night’s musical headliners, to get up and sing a rousing song. Ibrahim then bounded back onstage to fill the remaining time with impassioned remarks about Sudan. His country will soon divide itself politically, he said: “What we hope to have is an amicable divorce—for the sake of the children.” He expressed hope that “one day we’ll come back as a united Sudan.” His voice breaking, he concluded, “I’m sorry, I’m Sudanese, and I just couldn’t speak on this occasion without raising that issue.”

Earlier in the day, Ibrahim and his daughter, Hadeel, who is the director of strategy and external relations at the foundation, had argued about how long the events would run; Ibrahim had insisted that they might not fill the allotted hour; Hadeel and several board members said that they would. After the speech, Ibrahim stepped outside, saw me, and could not resist saying with a chuckle, “See, I was right to ask, ‘What if it takes less than an hour?’ ” After he sauntered back inside to lead the gathering in an explosion of clapping and dancing alongside Angélique and her band, Hadeel came outside and said, “I won’t hear the end of this.”

The next day, Ibrahim hosted four panels of eminent African public officials and economists to discuss issues ranging from ethnic conflict and civil war, to poor governance, to whether the small countries of Africa need to emulate the European Union and unite economically. Ibrahim announced that at the end of the four sessions the chairman of each panel would report on its recommended “solutions,” but it turned out that the event’s structure made it impossible to actually reach conclusions. Each panelist just gave a speech of ten minutes or so; then the moderator would call on the next person. There was no conversation and no one addressed, disputed, or refined anything that anyone else had said.

When the sessions ended, Ibrahim appeared at the lectern alone and said that he would try to summarize what he declared to be the day’s conclusions. “We need to have a plan, an action plan,” he said, waving a silver pen in his right hand like an orchestra conductor. He then enumerated fourteen bullet points, sounding more and more like an activist, not an analyst, as he went. “Let us take action!” he said, to push investment in Africa’s infrastructure. The idea of a single Pan-African Stock Exchange, which was cited by one panelist, is an “idea I very much support.”

That evening, Ibrahim scheduled a press conference at the Meridien Hotel’s conference center. There were about a dozen reporters in the room, none of whom had been invited to the panel discussions. He scanned his notes and repeated many of the same points he had cited at the end of the conference, describing them as the conclusions of the forum. An Ibrahim Foundation press release declared that the Mauritius forum “closed with an action plan,” and the papers duly reported the same thing.

Some members of Ibrahim’s board are uneasy with his freelancing. When he speaks out against atrocities in Darfur or Sudan, or when he unilaterally decides to endorse “an action plan,” is he speaking for the foundation? Mary Robinson, who admires him, says that what Ibrahim did after the forum is consonant with what he does with his own board: “He’s not the perfect chairman. He tries to wrap things up before we’re ready sometimes. It’s a businessman’s approach.” She also worries that the foundation may no longer be able to “absorb his energy.” This may be why, she says, Ibrahim is becoming more of “a political entrepreneur.” In recent years, he has joined the boards of ONE, the Coalition for Dialogue in Africa, the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa, the International Crisis Group, and the oversight board of the Natural Resource Charter. The foundation board member Mamphela Ramphele, who thinks highly of Ibrahim, described him as full of “passion,” “impatience,” and “bluntness.” But she worries about the attention he attracts. “I am against celebrity,” she says. “I hope he does not fall victim to this deadly sin.”

After the participants and most of the conference-center audience had left, Kofi Annan sat, surrounded by a sea of empty chairs, and spoke with me about his friend. “To some extent he was moonlighting,” Annan said, smiling. “But that’s Mo, too! That’s part of his personality.”

In late February, a month after the removal of Ben Ali in Tunisia, a week after citizens in Egypt forced Hosni Mubarak to step down, and a day after a desperate Muammar Qaddafi ordered his Army, Air Force, and militias to shoot scores of protesters, I reached Ibrahim on his mobile phone, in the South of France. As we talked about the protests and the tumult engulfing his continent, it became clear that, at that moment, the work of his that was changing Africa the fastest wasn’t the prize, the index, or the conferences with the illusory action plans.

For a century and a half, he said, we relied on a wired telephone system. Yet in just ten years mobile phones have become dominant. “And it is not just a phone,” he went on. “It is a camera. E-mail. Videos. It changes life everywhere. In repressive societies, control over communications channels were held by government. Mobile phones are a fantastic tool to break that monopoly. It is not just for when people go out on the street. They are swapping stories and sharing what is going on, who is corrupt, and that builds up a level of consciousness among people. It helps them fight back.”

I asked whether he had foreseen that what he did in business might become a weapon to achieve better government.

“No, I wish I had,” he said, laughing. “We never imagined the magnitude of that development. I wish I could say I’m so smart.”

Ibrahim knows that technology does not exclusively push society in the direction of greater freedom and openness. Soldiers who shoot demonstrators can plan their assaults over mobile phones, Egyptian authorities found an “off” switch to silence the Internet, and protesters can be tracked by their phones. Ibrahim also knows that the gains made by advocates for openness and democracy can vanish quickly. Nonetheless, Ibrahim is proud that citizens in Tunisia and Egypt used their mobile phones to plan demonstrations and communicate strategy through calls, e-mail, Facebook, and Twitter. A cell-phone picture, taken in a morgue, of Khaled Said, a businessman who was beaten to death by Egyptian security police, was posted on a Facebook page—We Are All Khaled Said—that helped spark protesters. “Most of the pictures coming from Libya are from people using their mobile phones,” Ibrahim said. “In Libya, when the cameras of the BBC and CNN were not allowed, people’s mobile cameras worked.” He believes that the people in the street put Western and other powerful nations on the spot, compelling them to choose between their deeds (support for dictators) and their words (support for democracy).

One day, when Ibrahim seemed in a contemplative mood, reflecting on his mobile-phone and good-governance efforts, I asked what he would like his legacy to be. Without hesitation, he said, “I’d like to be remembered as a good African boy who didn’t forget his people.”


© 1996-2010, Ken Auletta - all rights reserved
  headspinners facit