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

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Donald Trump's inauguration signals the start of a new and more unstable era

A century in which the world's hegemonic power was a rational actor is about to give way to a more terrifying reality. 

For close to a century, the United States of America has been the world’s paramount superpower, one motivated by, for good and for bad, a rational and predictable series of motivations around its interests and a commitment to a rules-based global order, albeit one caveated by an awareness of the limits of enforcing that against other world powers.

We are now entering a period in which the world’s paramount superpower is neither led by a rational or predictable actor, has no commitment to a rules-based order, and to an extent it has any guiding principle, they are those set forward in Donald Trump’s inaugural: “we will follow two simple rules: hire American and buy American”, “from this day forth, it’s going to be America first, only America first”.

That means that the jousting between Trump and China will only intensify now that he is in office.  The possibility not only of a trade war, but of a hot war, between the two should not be ruled out.

We also have another signal – if it were needed – that he intends to turn a blind eye to the actions of autocrats around the world.

What does that mean for Brexit? It confirms that those who greeted the news that an US-UK trade deal is a “priority” for the incoming administration, including Theresa May, who described Britain as “front of the queue” for a deal with Trump’s America, should prepare themselves for disappointment.

For Europe in general, it confirms what should already been apparent: the nations of Europe are going to have be much, much more self-reliant in terms of their own security. That increases Britain’s leverage as far as the Brexit talks are concerned, in that Britain’s outsized defence spending will allow it acquire goodwill and trade favours in exchange for its role protecting the European Union’s Eastern border.

That might allow May a better deal out of Brexit than she might have got under Hillary Clinton. But there’s a reason why Trump has increased Britain’s heft as far as security and defence are concerned: it’s because his presidency ushers in an era in which we are all much, much less secure. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.