Putting money on Africa’s future
He became a billionaire by creating the first pan-African mobile phone network. Now Mo Ibrahim is giving away millions in an effort to inspire good governance on the continent
Mo Ibrahim: the Sudanese-born entrepreneur who created Celtel, the first pan-African mobile phone network
The mobile phone has revolutionised Africa. With the number of users in sub-Saharan Africa rising from 90 million to 475 million in the past seven years, mobile phones are changing not only the nature of communication on the continent, but how Africans do business and hold their leaders accountable.
Few know this better than Mo Ibrahim, the Sudanese-born entrepreneur who created Celtel, the first pan-African mobile phone network, in the late 1990s. In 2005, when Celtel had about 24 million subscribers across 14 African countries, Ibrahim sold it for $3.4 billion (€2.6 billion).
Since then he has focused on philanthropy, setting up the Mo Ibrahim Foundation to encourage better governance on the continent. The foundation is best known for two initiatives: an annual index assessing governance in every African country, and the Mo Ibrahim Prize, which recognises democratically-elected African leaders who excel in office and, crucially, step down when they are supposed to.
The prize, which amounts to $5 million (€3.8 million) for each recipient, has been awarded three times in its seven-year history. The former Cape Verde president Pedro Pires won in 2011, Festus Mogae of Botswana in 2008 and Joaquim Chissano of Mozambique in 2007.
Ibrahim says he is not disappointed that no winner emerged last year. “The prize sends a message when it is given, and it sends an even bigger message when it is not given. The publicity around it means Africans start debating governance and leadership and that is a good thing.”
He believes the prize is important to highlight what he calls the “unsung heroes” of Africa. Most people’s knowledge of African leaders, he argues, extends only as far as the likes of Mobutu, Idi Amin and Robert Mugabe.
“Africa is 54 countries and it has had maybe five to 10 notorious leaders over the past 50 years but that should not characterise our leadership. It’s like characterising European leadership only through peoplesuch as Hitler, Mussolini or Milosevic.”
Ibrahim brushes off critics who are uneasy with the concept of financially rewarding leaders for doing what they are supposed to do. He argues that the money provides the means to allow exemplary leaders to carry on their work once they give up power. “We are giving the prize for excellence in leadership, for taking tough decisions. The Nobel prize is $1.5 million [€1.1 million], given to people who are doing their jobs. Why does no one object to that?”