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Mo Ibrahim: The 'Bill Gates Of Africa'


I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Now it's time for our Wisdom Watch conversation. That's where we learn from people who've made a difference through their work.

Today, we hear from a man who, having made his own fortune, is now trying to lift the fortunes of others by improving the quality of governance in Africa. We're talking about Mohamed - or Mo - Ibrahim. Born in Sudan, he founded a company that brought cell phone service to tens of millions of people across the African continent. After selling the company and becoming a billionaire, he decided to turn his attention to philanthropic pursuits focused especially on trying to raise the quality of leadership in Africa, most famously with the Ibrahim Prize, which is awarded to African heads of state or government who governed well, raised the standard of living and voluntarily left office.

For those efforts, he was recently honored with a prize of his own by Africare. That's the African-American-led nonprofit dedicated to development in Africa. We caught up with him recently at their dinner in Washington.

Mo Ibrahim, welcome to the program. Thank you so much for joining us.

MO IBRAHIM: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: When we first spoke with you, you had just awarded the first of the Mo Ibrahim Prize. It's considered the most valuable individual prize in the world. It recognizes good governance, leaders who have raised living standards, governed well and then stepped aside under the law.

Since that time, there have been a couple of years - in fact, most recently in 2012 - when you haven't awarded the prize. Are you disappointed? In fact, three years, you have not, 2009, 2010 and 2012. You've chosen not to award the prize. Are you disappointed?

IBRAHIM: (Unintelligible) I don't offer the prize. The prize is offered by the prize committee and so we have to observe good governance ourself. It is a very credible committee and this is a prize for excellence, Michel. It's not a pension, so what we're looking for is excellence and excellent leadership is something rare.

I was in Europe the other day and I was having a press conference and a man from the BBC asked me and said, oh, are you saying that there's no good African president? My answer was simple. I said, look, I'm happy to offer this prize to a European leader. Give me the name of a European leader who retired recently who you think really moved things forward and deserves the prize. And the room just erupted in laughter and no European journalist ever raised that question again. So don't raise that question again, Michel.

MARTIN: Do you think that the prize is having its intended effect?

IBRAHIM: I think so. What we wanted out of the prize, really, is raw attention to the issue of governance and leadership. The week before we announce the winner or the week after, this is the main subject of conversation in every dinner table in Africa. People say, oh, well, why my president didn't get it? Why this guy got it? Why? Once people start to talk about governance and leadership, that all what we wanted. Once a civil society gets hold of this issue, then our job is done.

MARTIN: What - of the major forces that we are now seeing in Africa - we're seeing a drive toward entrepreneurship, the roots of which have always been there. We're seeing a very young population. We are seeing a reverse migration in many ways, so many people who've been educated in the west in a previous generation would have stayed in the west are now returning home. We're also seeing investment, like from China and a number of other countries, but China being the one that gets the most attention. Of all those factors, what do you think is going to be the most transformative?

IBRAHIM: I think the rise of the African civil society is very important and this new generation of young people - and, by the way, half the African people is below 19 years old. We have the most young population anywhere on the planet and this young generation is much better educated than us, than our generation. It's much better connected to each other, but in our times, many years ago, there was only one newspaper in the country run by the government, one TV station, one radio station, both run by the government. And just to acquire a photocopier, you needed permission from the police.

Now, it is different, so the flow of information - this connected young people who receive better education than us who are not afraid. They are asking the questions. Why is that our standard of living? You know, Africa is rich as a continent. Why are we poor? That's the question. And when people start to ask that question certain conclusions will be reached and that is very important. So I'm really quite optimistic about the future of Africa, given this vibrant, young generation of people.

MARTIN: What do think you...

IBRAHIM: African women also are very important.

MARTIN: Mm-hmm.

IBRAHIM: Women in Africa are really the pillar of the society, are the most productive segment of society, actually. They do agriculture. Agriculture, 70 percent of our people live on rural areas and agriculture, that is a major activity in Africa, and agriculture is done by women - not by men. So women do agriculture. Women do kids. Women do cooking. Women doing everything. And yet, their position in society is totally unacceptable. And the way African men treat African women is total unacceptable. Fortunately, we see things changing. I mean we publish index every year, we measure like 88 parameters in every country, and this is one area where Africa saw the biggest and the highest percentage of progress, women's rights. But, we're coming from a very low place so we are moving forward, but that is a hopeful sign. Women and young people, this is the future of Africa.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, I'm speaking with Mo Ibrahim. He is the founder of one of Africa's most successful companies. He's also the founder of one of the world's most valuable individual prizes; it's the Mo Ibrahim Prize. It's awarded for good governance by an African leader.

I'm wondering, your idea of kind of rewarding good governance is something that, it's still controversial in some quarters, but it's brilliant in its simplicity. I'm just wondering why you and no one else. I mean there are other parts of the world sort of crying out for this. I mean, you know, Russia immediately comes to mind. I mean, and I'm just wondering why do you think you had this idea and no one else did?

IBRAHIM: I don't know. I mean I was...

MARTIN: I hope you aren't insulted by the question.

IBRAHIM: No, not at all. I was a businessman and the last phase of my career I built mobile communications in Africa, whatever, and made money. I wanted to give it back to Africa but I wanted to give it back in a meaningful way. Yeah, I mean I had the option of, you know, getting cartons of milk and blankets and take it to refugee camps, etcetera, but as a businessman I'm looking for return. I see this as an investment and I feed hundreds of starving people today and tomorrow. What about next year? Who is going to feed them? And actually, why those people are hungry anyway? So I really want to do something which deals with the root of the problem of hunger, of disease, of, you know, ills we have in our society and the answer to me was governance, we need really good governance. That's why I decided to do this and I'm in a good position to do this because, first, I'm an African.

If a European guy came to Africa and said hey guys, you don't have good - people could tell him to go to hell. You are an imperialist. You are a colonialist. Who are the hell are you to come and tell us what to do? I'm an African. Whatever I say nobody in Africa tell me well, it's not of your business. It is my business, OK? That's now one thing. Secondly, I'm giving my money to support this because our foundation don't accept grants from anybody so we are free. And nobody can accuse us of being stooges of United States, or Britain or imperialist, or we don't take money from Shell or from BP or anybody. So it's pure African money going back to do something African. And I'm unemployed and unemployable.


IBRAHIM: I'm not looking for a job. I'm not standing for an office. I don't have a boss. I'm not looking for a medal. I'm not looking for anything. So I'm free to speak out my mind so that's a wonderful position to be in, you are in enabled because you made your money, so I'm not looking for anything from anybody. So if I don't speak the truth, if I don't say what is need to be said, then what kind of person am I?

MARTIN: Before we let you go, I did want to ask if you had - and I know you said that, you know, you're an African and you feel free to speak your mind about Africa, but while you are in the United States, I am interested if you have some thoughts about governance in this country. In our last election there was a lot of conversation about - and in fact it's ongoing - about whether this country is indeed governable at the moment. Many people are - as you know, the public opinion polls in the United States - are quite critical of our national leaders at the moment, feeling like that they do not seem to have the ability or the, I don't know whether it's the ability or the will, to work together for the common good. Do you have some thoughts about this?

IBRAHIM: Well, we are, of course, very concerned. The United States is very important for us. You have a model of democracy which we're trying to emulate. So when you have seen your system almost grinding to a halt because of severe partisanship where people say no to each other without even listening to what is being said, it's sad. I mean I could not believe that an attempt to carry out background checks on people buying arms is being defeated in Congress. And, of course, I thought this - that all what we wanted is to check whether crazy people, sick people or criminals are buying serious weapons. What's wrong in that? So why some senators in this country to convince themselves to pick up a fight in behalf of criminals and drug, gangs, etcetera? I mean what - why anybody should be bothered about background checks? I don't understand. So there are things which from a distance we just don't understand. Is it because just the other party proposing this and the people are opposing it? Or is it because of the power of certain lobbies or whatever? So this unfortunately, poses a problem for us when we promote the American model and the American democracy because people say look, it doesn't work. In China, things happen. Now I don't subscribe to that.

MARTIN: I was going to ask, you don't...

IBRAHIM: No, I don't subscribe to that. And the - you see Churchill once said something a bit controversial, but his mother was American so he could say that, so I'm only going to quote him. He said, you know, trust the Americans. They'll always do the right thing after they tried everything else. So I trust your Congress one day is going to come up with the right decision and it's going to work sometime in the future.

MARTIN: One more question, if you would. And I think it's reasonable to say that a number of people hoped that President Obama would engage more with the continent in his first term, although he did visit, albeit briefly. What about the second term? Do you have particular priorities you would hope that he would address in his second term and his final term?

IBRAHIM: Yeah. We, again, I'll be frank with you because, you know, I think well, as friends we must be frank with each other. And we are very disappointed frankly, because you guys in America think Obama is your president. We in Africa think he is our president and we're very disappointed. People say where is he? We know he's busy with a lot of fights and budgets and gun control and all these massacres taking place somewhere here like in young children and there's a lot of issues being to deal with, but we just hope for more engagement from the president. And we maybe a little bit too demanding because but look, we believe he's an African. I mean, you know, he's also our guy and so we did some love for him. And there's no question of money for Africa, it's really a question of involvement and engagement.

America has always, the United States has always been very close to Africa and it's very sad now to see that Africa has a lot more friends - a lot more engagements with the Chinese, with the Indians, with the Brazilians as the United States retreats. Actually, Africa is a wonderful place to do business and American business is missing a big opportunity by really overlooking Africa. So we're waiting for you guys in Africa. Can we see you sometime there?

MARTIN: We'll do our best.


IBRAHIM: Thank you.

MARTIN: Entrepreneur and philanthropist Mo Ibrahim is the founder and former chairman of mobile communications company Celtel International. We spoke with him on his recent stop in Washington, D.C.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.