Mo Ibrahim is a warm man with a firm handshake, a big heart and a love for Africa.
Multi-billionaire from his cell phone operations established a foundation to assess African leaders. It honours the person who leaves office timeously and sets that country on a better path than when he came to office. The prize is five million US dollars — plus a grant for life
In South Africa to give the keynote address at the Eleventh Nelson Mandela Annual Lecture held at Unisa, Dr Ibrahim was also guest speaker at the tenth anniversary of the Mandela Rhodes Foundation. Leadership was honoured with a brief exclusive conversation with him in Pretoria after his Unisa lecture.
What inspired the creation of the Mo Ibrahim Foundation?
I felt the need to do something for the people of Africa. My roots are in Africa, I was born in Sudan and my strength comes from this continent. We deserve better. We can do better. Small populated countries and islands score higher on the index (Mauritius, Seychelles, Botswana). Why? Because the chance of social cohesion is higher among smaller populations. Big ethnic groups are not competing for power. All have a greater sense of belonging.
With three consecutive non-awards, can this be read as Africa mulling in poor decisions, poor leaders or even going in the wrong direction?
No, not at all. The criteria set up by The Foundation sets out the guidelines. Not every year does a leader come up for the end of term and vacate their office, which is one of the qualifying rules. We have to look at a broad range of criteria, setting one leadership style against another inside the parameters that are unique to each country. It is not at all a reflection on Africa. You just have to look at Europe with the same criteria. Who would win in the current round of politicians? Berlusconi? (he laughs).
Growth and prosperity across Africa will come, you say, from the cohesion of the social collective. Is this the task of political leadership?
Leadership is in all of us. We all play a part in opening our hearts to others and reach out, as citizens with a common cause. Our set values can divide us. Our past can inhibit us. Get over it. Move on. Embrace your fellow humans. You link health and education as cornerstones, along with good governance and strong leadership. These are one of the four pillars of society; along with human economic opportunity; the basic needs of water, electricity, communications; the rule of law; and safety and security.
What are South Africa’s strengths?
A highly developed infrastructure, as well as skills and know how. It is the powerhouse of Africa.
... and our weaknesses?
Lack of social unity, vast unemployment and youth and women in need of economic freedom.
Kenya, Egypt, Nigeria and South Africa: Africa’s strongest nations all failed with poor governance particularly with rule of law, safety, human rights and participation. Are there any positive turning points in any of these governances?
Kenya is optimistic. They have had peaceful elections. They are creative people with great initiative, looking for a good future. Nigeria is heading for elections, with a new sense of hope. Keep fingers crossed. They have a problem with terror strikes. Egypt is in the midst of crisis ...
Democracy is an imperfect mechanism with many variations to echo the will of the people. How can Egypt find new cohesion?
They must talk to each other. There is a disenchantment among the youth. Forcing religion on another person is not the answer. South Africa had its CODESA before its first elections, so that all parties knew what rules they were playing to. This seems a grave point that Egypt missed. Democracy is messy. It’s easy to confuse the concept of democracy with the election process. Democracy is listening to all parts of the human collective. It’s not about winning 51% of the vote and declaring that group’s totalitarian right.
... and Zimbabwe?
Elections must be clean. They must show a fair will of the people, not the will of the incumbent. The most powerful nation, the USA, is led by a man in his forties ... and here, a man in his nineties is about to start a 5-year term (laughs).
Great leaders implies great causes. Are we short on big challenges?
No, we have huge challenges. Climate change is just one. Africa didn’t cause the problem, but we can be part of the solution. There are big challenges with multinationals not paying taxes and keeping Africa the poorer. There’s a massive change in Africa’s demographics, with young people, nearly half of Africa’s population, now under 20 years of age, and all these people need world skills and understanding of how the new world operates.
So how significant will telecommunica-tions be in the development of Africa in the next decade?
Vital. It is the heart of African development. The whole of Africa has over three and a half million cell phones, mostly in South Africa, Egypt, Nigeria, Kenya, Morocco and Algeria — more than all of the USA. It will increase understanding across borders, inside countries, inform the needs of the people, increase jobs, business, and can increase GDP of countries by 1.5% to 2%.
To his audiences in South Africa, Mo Ibrahim told Pretoria to get its political act together and pay much more attention to the serious wealth disparities and its responsibilities, to step up to the leadership role the continent expects of it and to which it aspires.
“Leadership is not about bossing the people around. Leadership is not about securing a seat on the Security Council on behalf of Africa, or chairing the African Union,” says Ibrahim.
In some African capitals, South Africa is seen to be patronising with an overbearing style. “You have a role to play in Africa by understanding Africa, by engaging with Africa. That is what we are looking for. We are waiting. Don’t keep us waiting.”
“We expect a lot from you and we will not refrain from being critical when we see you wavering and misbehaving. Because, you matter to us,” Ibrahim said.
His speech was directed at the whole of Africa. In particular he highlighted the need for education and jobs for the oncoming tsunami of young people. He said 65% of Africans were under 25, but to ageing leaders their needs and hopes were largely ignored. Dr Ibrahim championed the need for greater opportunities for women in all aspects of life, not only as a moral imperative, but as an economic empowerment that would see more women in the workforce, increase productivity and raise the GDP of all African nations.
South Africa with its big working economy must be the powerhouse that leads all of Africa. But the gulf between rich and poor in this country is staggering. “This is the least equitable country in the whole world, and it is only legitimate to ask, after 20 years of independence, what exactly is really going on here?”
Black empowerment, he said, is clearly not working and the authorities need to have the courage to address the issue.
At the celebration of the Tenth Anniversary of the Mandela Rhodes Foundation, to which Mo Ibrahim has become a trustee, the emphasis was on the aspirations of youth. “Stop blaming colonialism for Africa’s problems”, was his ringing message. “Africa is a continent of young people who carry the tools for building a new society. Get going.
“Africa has been independent for 50 years. The problems of Africa can be laid very squarely on the very serious failure of governance and in leadership. No amount of aid in the world can solve Africa’s problems.”
At independence, the average income per head in African countries was higher than those in east Asia.
“Today the average income per head in South Korea is 70 times that of Africa. How come they went forward while we went backward? It’s not colonialism. Everyone was a colony at some stage. The United States was a colony.
“Look around and see how many corrupt leaders we have ended up with. Unfortunately there is a perception by leaders who come to power in Africa that the country and its resources are at the disposal of you, your family and your tribe. We need self criticism.
“The answer must come from our youth. They will be tasked to turn the African legacy around. The rise in civil society and the telecommunications revolution will be a game changer and will serve to hold leaders to account. The importance of civil society is immense,” said Ibrahim.
In total, 50% of African people are under 20 years of age. “Do you understand what this means? This is a continent of young people. It is for you to shape the agenda of the new Africa.You are a much better generation than ours. You are better educated, you are better informed and more capable of organising yourselves. Take hold of the opportunity.”
Government says the words electorates want to hear, but in petty and major crimes of theft it is those who have climbed into the comfortable positions of authority who have a lot to personally gain. It is business that loses. So the core driver for busting theft and corruption must be driven and monitored and practised by business at every level.
At the recent Brics Business Council Summit, Mo Ibrahim addressed the audience, in a reference to business talking to government bureaucracy, that throughout Africa, foreign investors were welcome, “but they just had to leave their brown paper envelopes at home.”