Mo Ibrahim: the man offering bribes to clean up corruption in Africa

“Seated on a Versace sofa in his seven-storey Mayfair townhouse, Mo Ibrahim does not look like a man who spares much thought for the problems afflicting Africa,” says The Sunday Times. But he does care and he’s prepared to put his money where his mouth is. Last week, the Sudanese-born billionaire announced he was offering a $5m annual prize, plus a $200,000 stipend for life, to the sub-Saharan African leader who demonstrates the greatest commitment to democracy and good governance in office.

It’s no mean carrot, says The New York Times: Ibrahim’s largesse far outstrips the $1.3m Nobel Peace Prize. The rationale is simple, he says. While former Western leaders can look forward to lucrative directorships and lecture tours on leaving office, former African leaders face an uncertain future. “These guys have no life after office. All the mansions, cars, food and wealth disappear. That incites them to stay in power. With this prize, we are saying there is life after office.”

The idea has already been welcomed by Kofi Annan, Nelson Mandela and World Bank chief Paul Wolfowitz as a potential “cure for corruption”. Ibrahim makes no bones about it: “Nothing, simply nothing, is more important to African development than good governance.
We are not victims. We should not just be sitting there waiting for the world to come and help us.” The real point of the prize, as far as he is concerned, is that “this is African money”.

Ibrahim is one of the richest men the continent has ever produced, says
The Independent. Last year, he sold his pan-African mobile phone company, Celtel, to MTC in Kuwait for $3.4bn. Often “chomping on a pipe and given to excited exclamations”, he has always hugged the shadows and laughs at the idea that he might have a yacht stashed away in Monaco. “I don’t even have a toy boat in my bathtub. I don’t have anything. Those things are toys and I don’t need them to be happy.’’ The son of a cotton trader, he was born in Nubia, but grew up in Cairo. After taking an engineering degree, he got a post as an intern at the International Telecommunications Union in Geneva. It was there, in 1971, that he had his ‘eureka’ moment. Sitting in a cab on his way to a movie, he was intrigued by the driver’s short wave radio and decided to study mobile communications.

Ibrahim moved to Britain, took a postgraduate degree and joined BT, where he led the team that designed the Cellnet (now O2) network – the first network for handheld mobiles. He found the culture stifling, says The Sunday Telegraph – a lot of “protecting your little arse” – and he thought BT had missed an opportunity to expand abroad. He quit in 1989 to form Mobile Systems International, an operation he sold to Marconi for $916m in 2000. The proceeds went into Celtel – a venture set up two years previously to tap into the overlooked African market. Ibrahim virtually had the field to himself. “We were the first to bet that cellular telephony would fill this void.”

The gamble paid off: within seven years, Celtel had ten million customers in 14 countries. “As an African, I was obviously aware of the daily difficulties, but I felt the risks were greatly exaggerated,” he told The Independent. Most importantly, he kept the firm “clean”. “From day one, we did not pay a single dollar in bribes.” Ibrahim declares that he would never have put himself under such intense public scrutiny “if he had any fears of skeletons rattling out of the cupboard”.

Can Ibrahim’s scheme really work?

Ibrahim has spent 18 months garnering support for the prize – and has left few stones unturned, says Africa News. The judges will consult a governance league table, devised by Robert Rotberg of Harvard, which assesses a broad range of measures – including health and education delivery and economic progress. If no candidate is considered worthy, no award will be made, sending a “powerful statement” to African leaders. Still, the prize has already come in for some flak. Some have dubbed it patronising. “What you are effectively saying is the only way to keep African leaders on the straight and narrow is to bribe them,” one academic told The Independent. “Would such a prize be offered elsewhere?” Others claim the prize will have no impact. “The problem is that corruption is systemic in Africa,” says London School of Economics expert Teddy Brett. “Every little helps, but $5m is chicken feed compared with what some politicians are creaming off.”

Surely the real question, says the FT, is whether the lure of money can beat the lure of power. “Some African leaders may choose to follow Vladimir Putin, who hinted he would step down on time as Russia’s president, but remain the power behind the throne. Wielding power from retirement could allow African leaders to get the $5m and remain in charge: the satisfactory choice for a crafty kleptocrat.”
 
It’s easy to be cynical, says AN Wilson in the Evening Standard. There is something odd “about bribing people not to be corrupt”. But if it works, why knock it? “Would it not have been better to offer Saddam $10m to go and live next door to Idi Amin in Saudi” rather than fighting the war we have to topple him?