Mo Ibrahim launches world’s biggest prize

Mo Ibrahim launches world’s biggest prize

Williams, Stephen

An inspirational new prize to promote good governance was launched recently in London. It aims to transform the African polity and provide additional momentum for the continent’s economic development. Stephen Williams has the details.

A $5m prize for Africa’s most effective head of state was launched in late October by one of the continent’s most successful businessmen. It will award one leader a year the princely sum of $500,000 every year for 10 years, thereafter $200,000 a year for life.

The man who came up with this plan is the Sudanese-born Mo Ibrahim, the telecoms entrepreneur, founder of Celtel, Africa’s festest growing mobile phone network and no stranger to the pages of this magazine (see ‘Doing meaningful things is my motivation’ – African Business May 2006 issue).

Ibrahim’s intentions are as simple as his vision is ambitious: he wants to raise the quality of African leadership and governance and, in turn, stimulate Africa’s economic development. The prize is being administered by the Mo Ibrahim Foundation (MIF) and will award winning elected leaders, when they step down from office, $5m over 10 years and thereafter $200,000 a year for life. There is a further faculty of $200,000 a year for 10 years to support the ex-leaders’ charitable projects. It makes the Nobel Prize of ‘only’ $1.3m look almost mean.

Ibrahim is providing the funding from his personal fortune. Speaking at the MIF’s launch in London, he said that the fact that African leaders are often expected to leave office without any financial means can make the temptation to indulge in corruption irresistible. “Our guys have no life after office … suddenly all the mansions, cars, food, wine is withdrawn.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.

“This prize will offer essentially good people, who may be wavering, the chance to opt for the good life after office. We need to remove corruption and improve governance – then the continent will not need any aid, and the day we do not need any aid will be the most wonderful day in my life.”

Governance league table

While fighting corruption may be high up the list of good governance objectives, the Mo Ibrahim Prize for Achievement in African Leadership – as this prize is formally named – also takes into account a leader’s ability to deliver security, health, education and economic development. MIF has asked Robert Rotberg of the Kennedy School of Governance at Harvard University in the US to compile a governance league table based on some 50 variables, but weighted towards delivering economic development and security. This league table will go before a special committee to arrive at a recommendation for MIF’s board. Ibrahim says that MIF expects the UN’s outgoing secretary-general, Kofi Annan to accept an invitation to chair this committee.

Joining Ibrahim, who chairs the MIF board, are a number of high-profile directors: Mary Robinson, former Irish president and UN high commissioner for Human Rights; Salim Ahmed Salim, former Tanzania PM and secretary-general of the OAU; Dr Mamphela Ramphele, founder member of the Black Consciousness Movement along with her late partner, Steve Biko, and a former managing dkector of the World Bank who currently co-chairs the UN Commission on Migration; Lord Cairns, former chair of Actis Capital LLP (formerly CDC Group pic), co-founder and chair of the Commonwealth Business Council, and former chair of the Overseas Development Institute; Nicholas Ulanov, an expert in providing strategy and management advice to the non-profit sector who co-founded ( the Royal Institution World Science Assembly; and Lalla Ben Barka, director of the UNESCO Regional Bureau for Education in Africa. I

Lining up to lend support to Ibrahim’s initia- j live was a veritable ‘who’s who’ of world leaders. | Kofi Annan, the UN secretary-General, enthused ‘ in his endorsement: “Good governance and democracy are central to Africa’s development Without them it will be hard, if not impossible, for any African country to reach the Millennium Development Goals by 2015… I thank Mo and all those engaged for establishing such a generous prize as an incentive. It reflects the unique insight of Mo the African and Mo the businessman and entrepreneur. May your initiative inspire and celebrate the best of African leadership and equip future leaders with the knowledge and experience they will need.”

Nelson Mandela’s message was similarly fulsome: “This is an African initiative celebrating the successes of new African leadership. It sets an example that the rest of the world can emulate. We wish the MIF well and call for leaders across the world – in government, civil society and business – to endorse its aims and back its vision. For MIF aims to deliver the biggest prize of all: helping to ensure that our rich continent becomes a prosperous one – for all its people.”

Former US president Bill Clinton also commented: “Mo Ibrahim has started an African Foundation to help Africa move forward, that’s a good example of Africa helping itself and important model for moving forward to create growth stability and peace in Africa. The MIF is establishing a prize to encourage effective leadership and to help focus the debate on Africa on good governance. I think you will agree that it is a very timely debate. It’s also a notable initiative because of the man who’s spearheading it… I wish the MIF much success in its important work and I thank Mo Ibrahim for the leadership he is demonstrating, the prize for which will be one we can all share – a better and brighter future for our children.”

As for Ibrahim, he stated, with some modesty, that the prize he had funded was just a drop in the ocean. “It’s just a small thing, my own small contribution,” he insisted. Nevertheless, it is the largest prize ever to be offered to Africa, or indeed to the world.

‘We’re not xenophobes’

Later, at a reception attended by most of London’s African diplomatic corps at the Mandarin Orient hotel, Ibrahim was visibly more relaxed when he spoke to his guests. Like Mandela, he described the MIF initiative as an African initiative, but he made an important qualification. “We’re not xenophobes,” he insisted, to gales of laughter, as he invited Mary Robinson to step forward and be introduced.

Ibrahim also talked about how he was struck by the cynicism he had encountered during an exhausting round of press interviews. “They all seemed convinced that I must have some ulterior motive to offer this prize,” he commented. Earlier in the day, at the MFI international launch, he had fielded a question from Alan Cowell of the The New York Times who had asked him very directly if the funding for the prize was ring-fenced and separate from his business interests.

Ibrahim patiently explained that, since selling Celtel to Kuwait’s MTC for $3.4bn in 2005, he only served as the company’s honorary chairman and no longer had any financial interest in the mobile phone company that he founded. He also confirmed that he had personally provided all the MFI prize fund monies.

Yet, while Ibrahim’s initiative was universally hailed as having great intentions, there were some that expressed doubts. One senior diplomat, who asked not to be named in print, told African Business that, in his opinion, Africa’s corruption takes place mainly at the ministerial level.

“It’s a big problem in Africa,” he explained. “Sometimes, a president will connive with ministers in corrupt practices, but more usually it’s done behind their backs, without their knowledge. And the other problem is that if a minister is incorruptible, or even too capable, they will be seen by cabinet colleagues as a threat Those colleagues will then mount a campaign to remove him, or her, from power.”

A Ghanaian lawyer also expressed her misgivings that the academic work behind the league table had gone to a US, not an African University – making the point that Hippolyte Foffack raised so eloquently in his guest column last month, The Heavy Cost of Marginalising African Intellectuals (African Business, November issue).

However, it is Ibrahim who has put his money where his mouth is, and it would be churlish to do other than applaud him for that. Less well publicised has been news of the MFI sponsoring a Foundation Scholarship for sub-Saharan Africa at London Business School.

Ibrahim has also announced that he is joining forces with Nasser Al Khurafi, the majority shareholder of MTC that now owns Celtel. Together they are to establish the Kuwaiti Sudanese Holding Company with an initial $110m fund to invest in Sudan.

Copyright International Communications Dec 2006

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