Mo Ibrahim’s Idea

25 October 2006

Mo Ibrahim’s Idea

By Gwynne Dyer

It is very unlikely that Gambia’s President Yahya Jammeh, re-elected last month to a third term with a 67 percent majority, will ever win the Mo Ibrahim Prize for Achievement in African Leadership. He is a stereotypical African “big man” ruler, which is precisely what the prize seeks to eliminate.

Yahya Jammeh.first came to power in a military coup twelve years ago. He has won three terms in more or less free elections on the strength of his lavish spending (of borrowed money) and his control of the police (who wore “Vote Jammeh” badges at his election rallies ). He is not a monster, and his small West African country has escaped the horrors that devastated other countries in the region. But you would definitely not trust him with the rent money.

Mo (short for Mohammed) Ibrahim is a very different sort of person. When I first met him in 2004 I thought he had a very good idea and practically no chance of turning it into reality, but money opens many doors. This week in London, he has launched a prize so rich that it puts the Nobel Peace Prize in the shade.

To qualify for the Mo Ibrahim Prize, you have be a democratically elected African ruler who handed over power peacefully to a similarly elected successor, and did good things for the country while you had power. The prize is worth five million dollars in the first ten years, and more if the ex-leader enjoys a very long retirement.

Mo Ibrahim was born 60 years ago in Sudan, grew up in Egypt, and moved to Britain in 1975 to study telecommunications. In 1989 he set up Mobile Systems International (MSI), and sold it to Marconi in 2000 for $900 million. Then he created Celtel, to bring mobile phones to all the countries in Africa.

They all thought he was mad, because everybody knows that Africans don’t have any money. But being poor doesn’t make you stupid, and Africans quickly realised that mobile phones are an investment that pays: if you are a fisherman, or a farmer, or a herdsman, or a market trader, this is how you find out where today’s best prices are. Between 1999 and 2004 mobile phones in Africa grew tenfold, from 7.5 million to 77 million (out of a total population of 800 million) — and Mo Ibrahim got a lot richer.

Last year the Kuwait-based mobile operator MTC bought Celtel for $3.4 billion — and Mo Ibrahim started looking for something useful to do with his money. Most Africans would agree that bad governments are one of their continent’s biggest problems, so what might be done to encourage powerful people in Africa to behave better? He focussed on just one key aspect of the problem: African presidents and prime ministers cannot afford to quit.

Most of them are paid less than taxi drivers in New York, London or Tokyo, and politically it cannot be otherwise, because their voters make twenty times less than that. So long as they are in office, they are well looked after — but most of them must either steal enough to retire on, or stay in office until they die.

Mo Ibrahim’s solution — and he would admit that it is only partial — is the Prize. As things stand now, if an African leader is legitimately elected, serves honourably, and quits when his time is up, he faces ruin. “Suddenly all the mansions, cars, food, wine is withdrawn. Some find it difficult to rent a house in the capital. That incites corruption; it incites people to cling to power. The Prize will offer essentially good people, who may be wavering, the chance to opt for the good life after office,” said Mr Ibrahim.

The Prize, for which only retiring African presidents and prime ministers are eligible, is $500,000 a year for ten years for their personal use, plus an additional $200,000 a year to give to charity. That deal ends after the first decade of retirement, but the ex-leaders continue to get $200,000 a year until they die. Some may call it cynical; Mo Ibrahim would prefer to call it pragmatic.

To help choose the winners, the Mo Ibrahim Foundation is creating an index of good governance. It will be similar to Transparency International’s corruption index, but it will measure how well African leaders deliver security, health, education and economic development to their people and how well they respect human rights and democratic process. The index will be produced annually by an independent team based at Harvard University — and it may actually be the most important component of the project.

Almost half of Africa’s 53 heads of state have been in power for more than ten years, and fifteen of them have been in power for over fifteen years. At most, the Mo Ibrahim Prize can persuade only one of them each year to retire. But if the index by which the lucky one is chosen becomes a widely accepted measure of the quality of governance in Africa, it will become an immensely useful tool in the hands of a younger generation of Africans who desperately want to break with the “big man” traditions of the first generation of post-colonial leaders. Which is doubtless what Mo Ibrahim really has in mind.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 8. (“They all…richer”; and “Most…die”)