Richard Dowden: On offer: a huge prize in a land of poverty

He is prepared to bribe Africa's leaders to rule well, then leave on time

Share

Today a small, cheerful, energetic ball of a man from Sudan called Mohammed Ibrahim is going to try to change the governments of Africa. In the past that would have meant organising a coup, but instead Mo - as he is known - is announcing a prize for presidents in the form of a stupendous pension.

The prize goes to an African leader who has been democratically elected, steps down when the constitution demands and has made life better for his fellow citizens. The staggering thing is the amount. The Mo Ibrahim Foundation Prize is $500,000 a year for 10 years with another $200,000 a year for his - or her - charitable activities during that period. After that the former president gets $200,000 a year for life. That is many times the going rate for a Nobel Peace Prize. Mo swears he has never paid a single bribe in Africa. Now it seems he is prepared to bribe its leaders to rule well then leave on time.

Some may be outraged that all this money should be offered to the very people who preside over Africa's poverty - and the sumptuous wealth of its ruling classes. African countries fill all the bottom places in the league tables measuring the quality of human life, and in Transparency International's Corruption Index. Surely the money would be better spent on schools and hospitals or training people as teachers and doctors?

But there is a growing consensus that the heart of Africa's problems is about "governance" - as the development industry calls it. Others call it Africa's greedy and incompetent rulers. The prize could add impetus to the good governance movement which is spreading across Africa, providing the tipping point for presidents who would like to do good - but not yet.

While the G8 leaders struggle to try to change Africa through aid - a route that has proved spectacularly unsuccessful in the past - Mo is going a more direct route. Like many business people, he sees aid as providing bandages, not solving the fundamental problems. But he does not see Africa's poor leadership as a random coincidence. He points out that it goes back to the colonial borders. "Very few countries have national identities and they all have weak institutions. That allows a strong man to come up," he says.

Many African leaders rule for themselves, their families or ethnic groups. Love of power, fear of being indicted when they leave, and Africa's traditions of respect for old age, kings and chiefs make presidents stay on and on. Today there are fewer ex-president living than presidents ruling, an indication, perhaps, of their long reigns - although in many cases, departure was fatal. Almost all the 53 current African presidents have been elected, but their elections have not always been free or transparent. Almost half of them have been in power for more than 10 years and 15 have been in power for more than 15 years. This is what Mo hopes his prize will change.

Mo Ibrahim is possibly Africa's most successful businessman. Born 60 years ago in northern Sudan, he came to Britain in 1975 to study telecommunications and then joined British Telecom just as it was beginning to use new telecom technologies. Mo wrote the textbook then left BT to set up Mobile Systems International which designed GSM networks all over the world. He sold MSI for $900m.

Two years later he set up Celtel to bring mobile phones to Africa. Investors thought he was crazy to even think that Africa could afford mobile phones, but he had in fact grossly underestimated African demand. Between 1999 and 2004 there was a tenfold increase in mobile phones users in Africa - 7.5 million to 76.98 million - far faster than anywhere else on the planet. No one saw that the demand was at the bottom of the pyramid, not just at the top. This was because there are no other effective forms of transport or communication in Africa.

You see mobiles every in Africa now: taxi drivers with the most battered automobiles have the most up-to-date mobiles. Market women at open stalls use them to check the prices in rival markets. Fisherman coming to land their catch check fish prices on different beaches and harbours. Nomads check the price of sheep, goats and camels before coming to town.

The next task is to establish a Mo Ibrahim Foundation index to measure good governance according to standardised criteria. Mo has brought together a team of people including Robert Rotberg of the Kennedy School of Governance at Harvard, Mary Robinson, the former president of Ireland, and Graca Machel, the consort of two African presidents. They will be debating the criteria at a meeting at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London tomorrow.

The author is director of the Royal African Society

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Helpdesk Analyst

£25000 per annum: Ashdown Group: An established media firm based in Surrey is ...

Ashdown Group: Java Developer - Hertfordshire - £47,000 + bonus + benefits

£40000 - £470000 per annum + bonus: Ashdown Group: Java Developer / J2EE Devel...

Ashdown Group: Head of Finance - Financial Director - London - £70,000

£70000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Head of Finance - Financial Controller - Fina...

Recruitment Genius: Business Development Executive - Nationwide - OTE £65,000

£30000 - £65000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This small technology business ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Ice skating in George Square, Glasgow  

How many Christmas cards have you sent this year?

Simon Kelner
 

Al-Sweady Inquiry: An exercise in greed that blights the lives of brave soldiers

Richard Kemp
Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas
La Famille Bélier is being touted as this year's Amelie - so why are many in the deaf community outraged by it?

Deaf community outraged by La Famille Bélier

The new film tells the story of a deaf-mute farming family and is being touted as this year's Amelie
10 best high-end laptops

10 best high-end laptops

From lightweight and zippy devices to gaming beasts, we test the latest in top-spec portable computers
Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

The batsman has grown disillusioned after England’s Ashes debacle and allegations linking him to the Pietersen affair
Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

The Williams driver has had plenty of doubters, but hopes she will be judged by her ability in the cockpit
Adam Gemili interview: 'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

After a year touched by tragedy, Adam Gemili wants to become the sixth Briton to run a sub-10sec 100m
Calls for a military mental health 'quality mark'

Homeless Veterans campaign

Expert calls for military mental health 'quality mark'
Racton Man: Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman

Meet Racton Man

Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman
Garden Bridge: St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters

Garden Bridge

St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters
Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament: An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel

Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament

An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel
Joint Enterprise: The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice

Joint Enterprise

The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice
Freud and Eros: Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum: Objects of Desire

Freud and Eros

Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum