Leading man

Ten years ago, billionaire Mo Ibrahim launched a foundation to inspire democracy and good leadership in Africa. Today, he warns that progress has stalled.

People ask, ‘how much have you achieved?’ And I don’t know, maybe very little, but at least I’ve tried. If you can just move things a few inches forward that’s great, because I’m sure a lot of other people are also helping to move that big animal forward.”

The ‘big animal’ to which Mohammed ‘Mo’ Ibrahim refers is no less than the reshaping of government in Africa, the continent of his birth and the passion of his life. Through his eponymous foundation, he has worked for more than a decade to foster democracy and build pressure for better, less corrupt leadership – and in doing so, has helped raise expectations and outputs across the region.

Today the Mo Ibrahim Foundation is considered the preeminent independent voice on governance in Africa. Ibrahim, meanwhile, is a magnetic presence, all exclamation and exhalation, at once galvanised and exasperated by the pace and direction of change on the continent.

“We don’t lack resources, we don’t lack land, and we don’t lack space, so what are we doing?” asks the Sudanese-born philanthropist. “Nelson Mandela [South Africa’s first black president] put it beautifully when he said that Africa is a rich continent, but the African people are poor. That for me was an amazing statement; it just slaps you in the face.” 

As founder of mobile phone operator Celtel, Ibrahim spent decades travelling the continent, working within and across byzantine power structures in both the public and private sectors. He became convinced of the value of strong institutions and the rule of law – and for a country’s leaders to inspire, not hinder, development.

“Good governance is really about institutions and the way the country is run,” he explains today. “Leadership is about vision, those rare leaders who can really transform a society.”

Ibrahim himself cannot be accused of a lack of vision. Having sold Celtel in 2005, in 2006 he launched a range of initiatives designed to foster good governance and reward superlative leadership.

The most high profile is the Ibrahim Index of African Governance, which ranks government effectiveness across the continent. Established initially with the John F Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, the index tracks 58 criteria in five main categories. 

A country’s score reflects how well it is providing services to its people – and nobody likes to be told publicly that they can do better. Upon its publication in 2006, the inaugural index was greeted warily in the corridors of African power. 

“The body language was not friendly,” recalls Ibrahim. “But nobody criticised us for doing it because people could not find an angle. We are Africans so nobody could accuse us of being colonialist. We are using our own money, so they could not say we were agents of the CIA. And we have no outside incentive because there’s no political or financial motivation for us to do this.”

It was not uncommon for disgruntled leaders to pick up the phone and complain to Ibrahim directly, to which they would receive a straightforward response: “I don’t write it.” 

The data is compiled from the foundation’s own measurements as well as 34 other sources. Every digit is indexed, every decimal point referenced against its source. And while Ibrahim insists leaders are welcome to contest the figures, “in 10 years we have not changed a single number”.

Today the index is both a benchmark and an incentive. A team headed by Abdoulie Janneh, the former under-secretary-general of the UN Economic Commission for Africa, spends its time flying from capital to capital, meeting with government leaders and discussing a country’s ranking.

It helps that major global donors – from USAID to the UK’s Department for International Development – use the index to aid in the disbursement of billions of dollars annually. A high score, then, can bring high reward.

“Countries accept that we’re not using the index to criticise any one government,” says Ibrahim. “We say, ‘This is the outcome of your policies; are you happy or is there something you need to change? And by the way, this is how your neighbours performed in all the same areas’.”

The benefit of this objectivity, Ibrahim notes, is that “it’s not a shouting match. It’s not personal or down to tribal or religious background. It’s down to achievement.

“It is not acceptable that leaders just rely on good speechwriters to sell whatever,” he adds. “It’s not about nice phrases or rhetoric or personal charisma. It is time to talk numbers, to talk facts."

“Unless we run our countries in a better way, no amount of aid will solve our problems.”

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Ibrahim is a fervent and high-profile advocate for democratic transition and good governance in Africa. Photo: Getty Images

“A good leader is not one who uses the country’s resources for private gain.”

Not all the leaders in Africa’s storied past – and present – have relied solely on words to entrench their positions. A handful of dictators have achieved and retained status through brutal means. In so doing, says Ibrahim, they have stained international perceptions of what an African leader can be.

“Who doesn’t know about [Uganda’s] Idi Amin? I haven’t yet met a person in Europe who doesn’t know Idi Amin, who doesn’t know [the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s] Mobutu,” he notes. “But why do people know only about our bad leaders when there are a lot of very good leaders too? This sends a very damaging message to young people.

“We need to bring those good guys out of the shadows to really recognise them,” Ibrahim continues. “If a Nobel Prize is given to a physicist or physician or songwriter, what about the leaders who take two or three million people out of poverty? Is that not a wonderful achievement?”

Ibrahim’s response was to launch a prize for excellence in African leadership. Awarded by a seven-member judging panel, according to strict criteria, the Mo Ibrahim Prize credits rulers who govern well and step down peacefully. The first winner was Joaquim Chissano, the former president of Mozambique, in 2007. Mandela received an honorary prize the same year. However in the decade since, the prize has only been awarded three times, due to a lack of suitable candidates. 

“This award is for excellence, it’s not a pension, and excellence by its nature is rare,” insists Ibrahim. “To have come to power democratically, moved the country forward, and then to have handed that power over peacefully; it’s a high bar. When there’s no winner we also send a strong message, which is important for our credibility.”

Criticism of the prize centres on its financial aspect: winners receive $5m over 10 years, followed by a $200,000-a-year pension. Ibrahim, however, argues that the salaries and pensions of African leaders are insufficient for productive life after office. He cites the example of Pedro Pires, who when he stepped down in 2011 had no house or car. When he lost the election, the former president of Cape Verde called a taxi and took his wife and two daughters to stay at his mother’s apartment.

“A good leader is not one who uses the country’s resources for private gain,” he says. “How do we deal with those guys who came out clean, those guys who come out and call a taxi?

“We want them to come back to public life as part of civil society, to show that there is life after leading,” he continues. “So we take care of them financially while they go around telling young kids what it means to be a leader, and engaging in the political arena on behalf of Africa.”

Since stepping down as president, Pires has founded a governance institute and is training civil servants on service delivery. Chissano has undertaken peacekeeping efforts in Uganda, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Madagascar. Botswana’s former president Festus Mogae, who won the prize in 2008, has launched a foundation focused on education for women and girls. “These guys are working and they are able to be involved because they don’t have to worry about feeding their children,” says Ibrahim.

Their efforts are timely. Much of Africa blossomed in the first decade of the new millennium; political progress was accompanied by a rise in commodities prices, which in turn fuelled investments in infrastructure. Now, however, stagnation has kicked in.

“No major developments have been made and we raised a flag about this three years ago,” says Ibrahim. “What happened in the north of Africa of course affected the overall performance of the continent. The Arab Spring countries have suffered a lot because if you are in the middle of a revolution then development is not taking place, people are losing tourism, and the energy of the country is spent somewhere else.”

In 2013 Ibrahim signed the Giving Pledge, the campaign led by Bill Gates and Warren Buffet that will see more than 150 billionaires give away at least half their fortunes in their lifetimes. It was, he says, “a no brainer because I was already doing it”. Yet these efforts do not represent the answer for Africa.

“Bill Gates has done a wonderful job in Africa and I love him to bits, but I look for the day when Africa doesn’t need Bill Gates, doesn’t need anybody else, because what happens after Bill Gates is gone?

“I don’t think of myself as a philanthropist, but more as an activist, because all the stuff we’re doing is trying to change the way we run our countries,” he adds. “We are pushing to build better institutions, better policies, because unless we run our countries in a better way, no amount of aid will solve our problems.” – PA