How to fight corruption with $5m in cash

Is it possible to build a fortune cleanly in African telecoms?

Mo Ibrahim describes himself as an “accidental businessman” but in 2005 he sold his African mobile phone company, Celtel, for $3.4bn. Ibrahim pocketed $1.4bn and set up the Mo Ibrahim Foundation to campaign for better governance across Africa. Since 2007 he has funded the world’s largest cash prize, worth $5m, which is awarded every year to an African leader who has led inspiringly and stepped down voluntarily. For two years, the prize committee has been unable to find a leader worthy of the award.

I meet Ibrahim in his offices in Marble Arch, central London, where framed photographs seem to cover every flat surface. A few are family portraits but most of the faces are familiar – on the table next to me is Ibrahim shaking Barack Obama’s hand, with the handwritten message: “Thank you for your good work.” Mo Ibrahim was born in Sudan in 1946 but grew up in Egypt. His father was a “modest man, who didn’t have beyond elementary education” and his parents wanted him to take up a career in government or academia, “middle-class respectability in our kind of society”. He worked first at the post office in Sudan’s capital, Khartoum, before moving to the UK to study. Business was never part of his plan, but in 1983, when he was teaching at Birmingham University, he was poached by British Telecom.

Working for BT was a turning point, because it “was a great lesson in how to screw up a business”. Fed up with the firm’s bureaucracy and its slowness to understand the potential of mobile phones, he left BT in 1989, to set up an independent consultancy and then, in 1998, founding Celtel.

Is it possible to build a fortune cleanly in African telecoms? Ibrahim, who often repeats the phrase that “behind every corrupt politician are 10-20 corrupt businessmen”, says Celtel was able to expand to 14 countries without paying bribes by instituting a rule that payments over $30,000 had to be signed off by the board. This offered protection to local chief executives when they came under pressure from national governments. “In the final analysis, finding a way to do clean business and not to pay bribes actually improves your bottom line,” he says.

The usually gregarious businessman is unable to hide his irritation when I outline common criticisms of the Ibrahim prize. Some argue it is needlessly large, others say it is pointlessly small: for the average kleptocrat, $5m is loose change. “People rush into these statements without reading what we’re doing,” he replies, energised with indignation. “This prize is not for corrupt people . . . this prize is intended for good people, who – prize or no prize – are good people.” He says the money is meant to enable winners to devote their retirement to charitable causes, rather than being a reward for not stealing in office.

Ibrahim also hopes the prize will shift perceptions. “The problem we have in Africa is an image problem. Everybody in Europe and the US, they know about our few corrupt leaders, even if they died 50 years ago,” he says. How would I feel, he asks me, if the only European leaders he could name were Hitler, Mussolini and Milosevic? “You would be insulted!”

Despite Ibrahim’s impressive address book, his award doesn’t (yet) have the same profile as the Nobel Peace Prize. Nor are its previous winners – Joaquim Chissano of Mozambique (2007), Festus Mogae of Botswana (2008) and Pedro Pires of Cape Verde (2011) – well known in the west. But if Ibrahim is hoping that the continent’s rising economic and political elite will start taking responsibility for poor governance and high poverty, it cannot be denied that he is setting a powerful personal example.

Prize fighter: the mobile-phone tycoon and philanthropist Mo Ibrahim. Image: Gary Calton/Eyevine

Sophie McBain is a freelance writer based in Cairo. She was previously an assistant editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 13 November 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The New Exodus

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It's easy to see where Berlin is being rebuilt – just hit the streets

My week, from walking the streets of Berlin to class snobbery and the right kind of gentrification.

Brick by brick, block by block, the people are rebuilding the city once called Faust’s Metropolis. To see it clearly, put your boots on. One of the most bracing walks starts by the Gethsemane Church, which served as a haven for dissenters in the last days of the GDR and takes you down ­towards the Hackescher Markt.

Here, in what is still the eastern half of a divided city that wears its division more lightly, is a Berlin experience both old and new. In three decades of frequent visits, it has been fascinating to note how much this part of town has changed. Even a decade ago these streets were rundown. With crumbling buildings showing bulletholes, it wasn’t hard to imagine what the place looked like in 1945. Now there are lilacs, blues, and yellows. Cafés, bars and restaurants abound, serving the young professionals attracted to the city by cheap rents and a renewed sense of community.

 

Breaking the fourth wall

Looking north along Schliemannstraße, you’ll find a delightful vista of well-tended balconies. It’s a pleasant place to live, notwithstanding the gaggle of grotesques who gather round the corner in the square. On Kastanienallee, which forms the second leg of the walk, an old city feels young. It’s a kind of gentrification but the right kind. There’s more to eat, to drink, to buy, for all.

Berlin, where Bertolt Brecht staged his unwatchable plays, was supposed to have been transformed by a proletarian revolution. Instead, it has been restored to health by a very middle-class one. Germany has always had a well-educated middle class, and the nation’s restoration would have impossible without such people. The irony is delicious – not that irony buttered many parsnips for “dirty Bertie”.

 

The new snobbery

The British Museum’s survey of German history “Memories of a Nation” is being presented at the Martin-Gropius-Bau as “The British View”. Germans, natürlich, are curious to see how we observe them. But how do they see us?

A German friend recently in England  said that the images that struck him most forcibly were the tins of food and cheap booze people piled up in supermarkets, and the number of teenage girls pushing prams. Perhaps Neil MacGregor, the former director of the British Museum who will shortly take up a similar role here at the new Humboldt Forum, may turn his attention to a “German View” of the United Kingdom.

There’s no shortage of material. In Schlawinchen, a bar that typifies Kreuzberg’s hobohemia, a college-educated English girl was trying to explain northern England to an American she had just met. Speaking in an ugly modern Mancunian voice that can only be acquired through years of practice (sugar pronounced as “sug-oar”), she refer­red to Durham and York as “middle class, you know, posh”, because those cities had magnificent cathedrals.

When it comes to inverted snobbery, no nation can match us. To be middle class in Germany is an indication of civic value. In modern England, it can mark you as a leper.

 

Culture vultures

The Humboldt Forum, taking shape by the banks of the Spree, reconsecrates the former site of the GDR’s Palace of the Republic. When it opens in 2018 it will be a “living exhibition”, dedicated to all the cultures of the world. Alexander von Humboldt, the naturalist and explorer, was the brother of Wilhelm, the diplomat and philosopher, whose name lives on in the nearby university.

In Potsdamerplatz there are plans to build a modern art museum, crammed in between the Neue Nationalgalerie and the Philharmonie, home to the Berlin Philharmonic. Meanwhile, the overhaul of the Deutsche Staatsoper, where Daniel Barenboim is music director for life, is likely to be completed, fingers crossed, next autumn.

Culture everywhere! Or perhaps that should be Kultur, which has a slightly different meaning in Germany. They take these things more seriously, and there is no hint of bogus populism. In London, plans for a new concert hall have been shelved. Sir Peter Hall’s words remain true: “England is a philistine country that loves the arts.”

 

European neighbours

When Germans speak of freedom, wrote A J P Taylor, a historian who seems to have fallen from favour, they mean the freedom to be German. No longer. When modern Germans speak of freedom, they observe it through the filter of the European Union.

But nation states are shaped by different forces. “We are educated to be obedient,” a Berlin friend who spent a year at an English school once told me. “You are educated to be independent.” To turn around Taylor’s dictum: when the English speak of freedom,
they mean the freedom to be English.

No matter what you may have heard, the Germans have always admired our independence of spirit. We shall, however, always see “Europe” in different ways. Europe, good: we can all agree on that. The European Union, not so good. It doesn’t mean we have to fall out, and the Germans are good friends to have.

 

Hook, line and sinker

There are fine walks to be had in the west, too. In Charlottenburg, the Kensington of Berlin, the mood is gentler, yet you can still feel the city humming. Here, there are some classic places to eat and drink – the Literaturhauscafé for breakfast and, for dinner, Marjellchen, a treasure trove of east Prussian forest delights. Anything that can be shot and put in a pot!

For a real Berlin experience, though, head at nightfall for Zwiebelfisch, the great tavern on Savignyplatz, and watch the trains glide by on the other side of Kantstraße. Hartmut Volmerhaus, a most amusing host, has been the guvnor here for more than 30 years and there are no signs that his race is run. The “Fisch” at twilight: there’s nowhere better to feel the pulse of this remarkable city. 

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage