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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Leader: The chaos and mendacity of Trump’s White House

That General Flynn was the first of the president’s men to fall should perhaps not have caused surprise.

In his inauguration speech on 20 January, Donald Trump used the phrase “American carnage” to ­describe the state of the US under Barack Obama. The description was correct, but President Trump had the timing wrong – for the carnage was still to come. Just a few weeks into his presidency, the real-estate billionaire and reality-TV star has become embroiled in more controversy and scandals than Mr Obama experienced in eight years. His ban on citizens from seven Muslim-majority countries entering the US caused chaos at airports both at home and abroad and damaged America’s global standing. It was a false claim that the executive order, since suspended by the courts, would make the US safer. By alienating and stigmatising Muslims, it may well do the opposite.

The decision to pursue the policy so recklessly and hastily demonstrates Mr Trump’s appalling judgement and dubious temperament. It also shows the malign anti-Islamic influence of those closest to him, in particular his chief strategist, Steve Bannon, his senior adviser Stephen Miller, and Michael Flynn, the retired general who on 13 February resigned as ­national security adviser after only 24 days in the job.

That General Flynn was the first of the president’s men to fall should perhaps not have caused surprise, given his reputation for anger and arrogance. As recently as August, the retired three-star general said that Islamism was a “vicious cancer inside the body of 1.7 billion people” and falsely claimed that Florida Democrats had voted to impose sharia law at state and local level. He also led the chants of “Lock her up!” aimed at Hillary Clinton during the Republican ­National Convention, which would have been appreciated by Mr Trump then and today by those who enjoy irony.

Now General Flynn is under investigation by justice officials. He resigned over revelations in the media, most notably the Washington Post, that before taking office he had discussed US sanctions against Moscow with the Russian ambassador. It is unlawful for private citizens of the US to ­interfere in diplomatic disputes with another country.

Before standing down, General Flynn had publicly denied talking about sanctions during calls and texts with Ambassador Sergey Kislyak in late December. He had also issued misleading accounts of their conversation to Vice-President Mike Pence and other Trump officials who went on to defend him. Given President Trump’s propensity to lie, General Flynn may have believed that he could get away it. As the former chief of a Pentagon spy agency, however, he should have known that the truth would come out.

The FBI had wiretaps of the ambassador’s conversations with General Flynn. In January, the acting US attorney general – later sacked by President Trump for opposing his “Muslim ban” – informed the White House that General Flynn had lied about his communications with the ambassador and was potentially vulnerable to Russian blackmail. Yet it took newspaper revelations about the intercepts to bring the national security adviser down. American carnage, indeed.

The disruptive present

How has capitalism shaped the way we work, play and eat – and even our sense of identity? Nine writers explore the cutting edge of cultural change in the latest instalment of our New Times series in this week's magazine.

The past decades have brought enormous changes to our lives. Facebook became open to the public in 2006, the first iPhone was launched in June 2007 and Netflix launched in the UK in 2012. More and more of us are ceaselessly “on”, answering emails at night or watching video clips on the move; social media encourages us to perform a brighter, shinier version of ourselves. In a world of abundance, we have moved from valuing ownership to treating our beliefs as trophies. The sexual vocabulary and habits of a generation have been shaped by online pornography – and by one company, MindGeek, in particular. We cook less but love cookery shows. We worry about “fake news” as numbers of journalists decline. We have become gender consumers, treating it as another form of self-expression. These shifts in human behaviour have consequences for politics and politicians. “The question should always be,” as Stuart Hall wrote in 1988, “where is the ‘leading edge’ [of change] and in what direction is it pointing?” The question is even more apposite today.

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times