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

STF/AFP/Getty Images
Show Hide image

Must I unremember the day I wept over the long, slow suicide of a 27-year-old man?

At that time we did talk about the occupation of Ireland. Now we have to pretend we didn’t and it’s all the jolly UK and thank you, England for the peace process.

The misremembering of history interrupts these tales of my own squalid past. Very often I find myself wishing my memories were wrong, or that I’d forgotten more than I have. This would certainly be the case were I to be a politician, albeit a small-time one in big-time government. In the era of renunciations and sincere apologies, I would have to say sorry most of the time.

But I can’t. I can’t get past that clear day in May 1981, when the tangy cold spring air of a New York day got right inside me. Ambling home from another long, messy night in the Village, I was near 52nd when I saw people carrying a coffin.

“It’s not him, of course. It’s a fake coffin,” said a woman who saw the shock on my face. Maybe I was already crying. I knew and didn’t know but asked anyway.

“Yes. Bobby.”

Bobby Sands had died. Crowds were gathering with banners about Smashing Long Kesh and Smashing Thatcher.

The shock of it has never left me and God knows “martyrs” come two a penny now. Yet the idea that someone can starve themselves slowly to death for an idea is shocking. The idea that someone can let them do it, either “for” a United Ireland or “for” a United Kingdom, remains profoundly disturbing to me.

I need no lectures about what vile and murderous bastards the IRA were, or the numbers of innocents they killed. Nor about the smeary sentimentality of martyrdom itself. All I can say is that I had little idea of what “we” did in Ireland as long as I lived in England. A boy at school had run off to join the IRA. My mum said, “Well, he’s always been tapped, that one.”

We were kept ignorant. For some stupid reason, I did not think that Thatcher would let the hunger strikers die.

Their demands, remember, were the right not to wear prison uniform or to do prison work, rights to free association and education within the prison, one visit, one parcel, one letter a week. They wanted to be treated as political prisoners. Thatcher said Sands had no mandate. He was actually an MP, with more votes than she ever won in Finchley.

In New York that day, when we got to Third Avenue, there was anger and then solemnity. There were mumblings about what a death like that entailed . . . Mandela then instigated a hunger strike on Robben Island. There were protests in Milan and Ghent. French towns would name streets after Sands.

At that time, though, yes, we did talk about the occupation of Ireland. Now we have to pretend we didn’t and it’s all the jolly UK and thank you, England for the peace process.

So, must I unremember that day when I sat down on the pavement and wept over the long, slow suicide of a 27-year-old man? Let me know how to uncry all those tears shed for that terrible, terrible waste.

Suzanne Moore is a writer for the Guardian and the New Statesman. She writes the weekly “Telling Tales” column in the NS.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide