Mo Ibrahim: The billionaire who is corporate Africa’s conscience

Mo Ibrahim: The billionaire who is corporate Africa's conscience

Having become a billionaire at the helm of telecoms giant CelTel, Mo Ibrahim dedicated himself to improving governance and fighting corruption in Africa through his foundation. Zach James profiles him

Mo Ibrahim is the international businessman and philanthropist behind the Ibrahim Prize for Achievement in African Leadership. The prize is worth US$5 million over 10 years and US$200,000 a year after that to retired African heads of state who have left their countries both financially and morally better off. It is the world’s largest annual award.

Prudential Plc CEO Tidjane Thiam refers to Ibrahim as “the only billionaire in Africa who is not a president or a politician” and Forbes lists him as the 71st most powerful person in the world. His path to such an influential position is inspiring. His origins were humble and he had incredible foresight about the future of the telecommunications industry.

Ibrahim, who now lives in Monaco, was born in the Nubian region of Northern Sudan and studied for a Masters in electrical engineering at Bradford University and a PhD at Birmingham University. He started the Mo Ibrahim Foundation in 2006, and inaugurated the annual prize the following year, focusing on the critical importance of governance in Africa.

Dr Ibrahim’s 1974 doctoral thesis investigated telecommunications decades before the industry became a dominant force. His prescience helped to secure his first major position as technical director at BT, then the largest company in the UK. His team at BT designed the world’s first hand-held mobile phone network, but the “big company mentality” meant his project never developed. He chose to leave and found his own organization. Talking to Bloomberg earlier this year, he admitted: “I was not a businessman – I just had to learn as I went along. I’m just an engineer, so I tried to have fun and do what I know.”

Progressing through various telecommunications companies of his own, Ibrahim finally founded CelTel in 1998, providing mobile communications and operations exclusively across Africa, which had been neglected by other network groups. When he created CelTel, there were about two million cellphones in Africa. By 2005, that number had increased to over 100 million. Ibrahim progressed CelTel from a start-up to securing US$1 billion in revenue in just seven years.

Two major triumphs

Ibrahim had achieved huge success by the time he sold CelTel for US$3.4 billion in 2005, but the introduction of widespread mobile networks across Africa had become more meaningful to him. His experiences at CelTel were relevant, however. Ibrahim believed there were two major triumphs of CelTel’s work. The first was the infrastructure the network nurtured, which he described to broadcaster Shivvy Jervis as having “connected Africa, enabled businesses, improved social fabrics and quality of life”.

The second of CelTel’s triumphs concerned the legitimacy of the business, an impressive achievement considering the corruption in some African businesses. So potent was the threat of bribery when Ibrahim founded CelTel that he introduced a system whereby any expenditure above £30,000 had to be signed off by all eight members of the board. Ibrahim also had to consider the accountability of institutions he dealt with, as well as methods of promoting quality leadership.

‘We expect business people to work for profit and for development of their own businesses, and in doing that, help the development of poorer countries. All I want to ask them is to do that with a clean social conscience and clear ethical principles,’ Mo Ibrahim

At the age of 61 and with these notions as his primary concerns, he founded the Mo Ibrahim Foundation to promote exceptional leadership among African countries. One strong priority is that the diversity and vibrancy of all 53 African countries are accurately portrayed in the worldwide media and that successes are broadcast alongside all the headlines about poverty and war.

To be considered for the Ibrahim Prize for Achievement, an individual must be a former African Executive Head of State, who left office in the previous three years. He, or she, must have been democratically elected and demonstrated exceptional leadership skills.

The first recipient in African Leadership was Joaquim Alberto Chissano, in 2007. His 19-year presidency of Mozambique oversaw the transition from a violent, Communist country in 1986 – when he assumed office – to a stable, democratic nation with a free market economy.

Subsequent recipients have been Festus Gontebanye Mogae, the former President of Botswana, in 2008, and Pedro Verona Pires, the former President of Cape Verde, in 2011. The board chose not to give an award in 2009, 2012, and 2013, a decision Ibrahim discussed with The Economist’s John Andrews at the 2013 World Policy Conference.

“The prize itself is not a measure of how good the governance is – it is for exceptional leadership. We’re looking for exceptions. We don’t expect to see that level of excellence so frequently. In six years we had three winners .. I think that is not a bad result, and in six years if you had this prize in Europe I doubt if you could have had three winners,” he said.

“The whole story of the foundation is how to take Africa forward,” Ibrahim told Jervis, though his message extends beyond his home continent. He explained how behaving ethically did not have to dent the profit motive.

“The main objective of business is profit. This is a fact; businesses are not charities. We expect business to really work for profit, but the fact that they are investing and creating jobs and work is important for development. Continue to do that, but do it ethically. We don’t ask you to turn from business to charity. We expect business people to work for profit and for development of their own businesses, and in doing that, help the development of poorer countries. All I want to ask them is to do that with a clean social conscience and clear ethical principles. That’s not difficult.”

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