‘People need to see Africa as it is’, says billionaire Mo Ibrahim

“I have always been optimistic about Africa, and Africa is where I make my money, without paying bribes… In 15 countries we have built a mobile communications [company] there and we did not pay a single dollar [in bribes].”

Mo Ibrahim

Mo Ibrahim

This is according to Sudanese-British telecoms billionaire Mo Ibrahim, speaking at an event on the sidelines of the US-Africa Leaders Summit, currently being hosted in Washington DC. The Summit, the first of its kind, is being attended by US President Barack Obama and close to 50 African leaders to discuss a number of issues concerning US-Africa relations.

Ibrahim pointed out the irony of so many African leaders having to travel to the US to discuss opportunities for US businesses in Africa.

“Wherever you go in Africa there is Chinese business people, there is Brazilian business people. None of us went to Brazil or to India and China to tell them to come and invest in Africa. They find out themselves and they come and invest… Why must we come and inform this ‘misinformed’ American business? You guys invented Google, invented all these media platforms. Use it, please,” he told a chuckling audience.

Africa is not unlike other regions

Ibrahim did however highlight a couple of misconceptions about Africa, one being that Africa’s 54 different countries are often clumped together and considered one homogeneous region. The existence of war or human rights violations in one country is often generalised to the entire continent.

He noted when there is war in Ukraine or genocide in Bosnia, no one calls all of Europe a “basket case”, like they do when these events happen in Africa.

Another misconception is that bad leadership is unique to Africa. Ibrahim said the continent is often remembered for its bad leaders such as Mobutu (President of the DRC, then known as Zaire, from 1965-1997) and Idi Amin (President of Uganda from 1971-1979). He argued that the western world has also had its fair share of bad leaders.

“Come on, you had Milošević, you had Berlusconi, you had Hitler, you had Mussolini. You had all those guys. So I just hope for the day that [the west] recognises that we [Africans] are just normal people, like everybody else, who is blessed with a huge continent. We have a lot of resources and we have mismanaged it sometimes… We have had some failure in leadership; we accept that as well. We all have our faults but we are dusting ourselves off and trying to move ourselves forward and we have a better, new generation coming through,” he said.

“People need to see Africa as it is. Africa is a normal continent. We are normal people just like you, the guys in America, or anywhere else.”

African leadership improving

In 2006 Ibrahim founded the Mo Ibrahim Foundation with the goal of promoting good governance and fighting corrupt leadership. The foundation gives an award of US$5m over 10 years ($200,000 per year for life thereafter) to retired African heads of state who have left their countries better off and more transparent due to their exceptional leadership.

The prize is said to be the largest annually awarded prize in the world. While not every year has seen winners announced (due to lack of credible candidates) there have been four recipients of the award so far, including Nelson Mandela (South Africa) and Festus Gontebanye Mogae (Botswana).

The foundation also publishes the Ibrahim Index of African Governance, which ranks governments by their ability to ensure sustained economic opportunity and the rule of law.

Ibrahim said data over the last 10 years indicates improvements in African governance.

“We have material proof that 94% of the African people today live in much better governed countries than 10 years ago. So governance is improving and that is really the story about Africa, because from good governance everything good comes,” he continued. “Without good governance there is no hope; we cannot really move forward.”