Africa: Celtel Founder Explains Reasons for Leadership Prize

Mo Ibrahim discussing the Ibrahim Index of African Governance in Cape Town in October 2009.
26 October 2006

Washington, DC — Celtel founder Mo Ibrahim told AllAfrica about his groundbreaking $5 million prize for African leadership, the largest award in the world. Excerpts:

The leadership prize is a prize in recognition of achievement. We are challenging the African leaders to really get to grips with the very complicated issues facing them. It is very challenging to run a country where you have a lot of people in the poverty trap. You have health issues: malaria, Aids, etc. You have a young population that needs education. You need to build your infrastructure. You need to build your agriculture, your industrial base. So much needs to be done, and we think that the brilliant leaders who really manage to lead their countries out of the poverty trap ought to be recognized and applauded, because the task is just too big. That is one objective of the prize.

The second objective is we really want to raise the issue of governance and leadership. It is a very important subject and it is not receiving enough attention from anybody. It is crucial. Without good leadership and good governance, I don't think we can execute the tasks we need to deal with in Africa. We are recipients of aid now and we thank the donor countries for this, and the generous people who are helping, but we really need to get out of that situation to stand on our feet, and that will require a greater effort in development and that requires leadership. What is leadership, really? It is delivering to your people the essential requirements. We need to articulate these essential requirements. We need to measure achievements. Good governance, we believe, is measurable and we need to develop the tools to measure it. We need to publish that to everybody to have access so people know who is doing what. I think it's important that the citizens of Africa take the leaders to account. What has been delivered to them as stakeholders, they need to know it. Based on that objective measurement, people really can decide who are the leaders that managed to take us forward.

The third one is to also tell people there is life after office. We need to enable people to have life after office, life in service of civil society. That's very important. We look at people like President Clinton, what's he doing right now. A lot of people think it is wonderful. He is a young president who left office and he did not go to the swimming pool. He is running around, dealing with complex issues for humanity, and that is wonderful. Everybody applauds that. It is not only Democrats or Republicans. Everybody. This is a wonderful life after office. We would love our leaders to have a life after office and we want them to get involved in civil society, so they can do a lot of good things there. The prize is meant to hold those successful leaders to really engage civil society.

Some people may perceive this as a sort of pension.

We are not putting this out as a department of pensions. It is a reward for the leaders who really managed to deliver to their people. Number two, the objective is to have a debate about governance, which we are having right now. Without the prize we would not have talked about it, maybe. The third is to enable retiring presidents not to go to pension, sitting by the swimming pool, but to engage in the civil society and to really play the role.

You don't have to have an office to be useful. We can do a lot of things out of office. You don't need the power of the office to do things. Civil society is so rich. We need to get engaged there. We need the president to go talk to school kids, tell them what it means to be president. What does it mean to make hard decisions? How did they make it themselves? What does it mean to be a good citizen? We need to take up the cause of women in Africa, tackling issues like rape. We have a lot of rapes in Africa. Why is that? [We have] issues of conflict: tribal, ethnic problems. [Leaders should] be a voice for progress, for equality, etc., for all those wonderful values we hope to prevail in our society. They can do that role. We will help them to do that, I hope.

You've been described as having an entrepreneur's common sense, since you got your formal training in engineering instead of business. It sounds like you're bringing that same attitude to the question of governance.

I hope so. We have been consulting and talking to many, many people in all walks of life. We talk to presidents, to people in the World Bank, to people at the United Nations, to people at NGOs, to captains of industry, to academics, to young people: we tested this with a lot of people. Everybody says, "What? Why did we not think of this before?" It really makes common sense and I hope it is right. We will see. But what is important is that we are not afraid. We have an idea. We think it is a good idea. We'll go out and try it. We hope we succeed. You cannot sit back and do nothing.

How did you decide to team up with Prof. Robert Rotberg and Harvard?

As a board, we decided that we need to develop an index for good governance and good leadership, and that index should be based in scientific facts, not on liking or disliking. Today we argue, do you like Mugabe or do you not like Mugabe? Do like this guy, [or] don't you like this guy? There is too much passion in the discussion. Look, let us take the prejudice, the passion out of this. What is a leader supposed to do for his people? He's supposed to improve the standard of living, to help them get jobs, get kids to schools, [and have] enough medicine and hospitals. We can quantify what is needed and we can measure it. That's why we decided to look for an academic center to work with us in producing the index. We found that Rotberg and Kennedy School of Government really are doing a lot of work in the area of governance and measurements of governance. That's why we decided that Bob and Harvard would be a useful starting point.

We needed also to have credible people. Whatever we want to do, we need to do things right and correctly. Our people communicated with UN people (working on the Human Development Index) and the World Bank (for economic data), and we agreed to coordinate. We are not trying to replace the wheel. We are not trying to replace any organization. We are adding value to whatever is there, and that is the way to work. We are putting a team in the center to produce that index so we can quantify, you can measure, and then it becomes much easier and much more objective for the committee to select.

How will the committee select, since the index is based on countries, but the prize is given to individuals?

It is based on year-to-year of what is happening. The period of the president or the leader will be projected on top of that, so it is very easy. You lead a country: you come to power in 2004, you leave in 2008. All that we need is to see what was the performance of the country when you took power, [and] what was the performance of the country when you left power? We need to produce the curves and the percentage growth in various areas, and we measure the slope of this growth. It's a very scientific process and it can be measured. We understand there will always be elements: a tsunami hits a country or a disaster which can affect something, but that's why the committee will use its judgment. It's not automatic.

When will the foundation award the first prize?

We think the work will start to take shape probably by the summer next year and maybe this year we'll be in a position that the foundation will offer its first prize.

So sometime after next summer?

Yes, I hope so.

How often will the prize be awarded?

It's an annual prize.

In terms of the foundation's endowment, how much are you planning on spending? With new ex-presidents being added every year, this is quite a large amount of money for each individual, but it's an enormous amount of money for the foundation altogether.

Yes, but I have put all my proceeds and wealth behind this. We produce our financial models for this and based on an assumption that the span of life for a president after office is probably on average 25 years, which is a reasonable number, we must do the financial projection, and we put in place enough funding to deal with that. We are fully funded. We are not seeking money from anybody, because we also have to be careful here. I'm no longer involved in big business, because big business should not be involved in this. We talk about governance, so government should not be involved in this. This can only be done, really, by a private African citizen. And that's what we're doing. That's why I had to come up with all the financial guarantees and money to put in place to go ahead with that. And that's been done.

What's the reaction from African presidents you talk with?

Everybody I spoke to was delighted. Absolutely. They said, "Only an African guy would understand what is the problem."

That was my next question.

Because there is a problem, really. I spoke to no less than seven or eight senior presidents, past and current. I spoke also to Mr. Alpha Konare of the African Union. All those guys understand that very much. I talked to maybe 250 leaders in business, in government, in NGOS and I haven't come across anybody yet who said, "This is a stupid idea. You're wasting your money." Everybody said this is great.

What is the importance of the fact that you are African and this is an African idea for African governance?

I think this is crucial. This could not be done otherwise, because it would not have been acceptable if this came out of these big oil companies, for example. People would have said, "Oh, these guys are looking for concessions, for something under the table." It doesn't work. It could not have come from the G7 or the World Bank, because immediately that would have been meddling in the political affairs of other sovereign countries and biasing their policies this way or that way. It could not have come from anybody else. It has to come from Africa. The message is that we, Africans, it is time for us to take charge of our issues. It is our responsibility to look after our continent, to look after our kids.

Yes, we have problems. Sometimes we need aid from people and we're grateful for that. But we don't want that our children will also be sitting there waiting for aid or your help or anything. We have to go and build our future. The only way to do that is to really govern properly. Our continent is rich. It is really rich. And we are squandering it. It's time now for a new generation of leaders. It's coming through already. And that new generation is going to take us forward. It is in celebration of that new generation that we are really setting up this prize.

This seems to me to relate to your faith in Africa more generally and as an investment destination for businesses that want to make money.

Absolutely. We say, Africa's open for business. Africa's a wonderful place to do business. Our experience at Celtel showed that a company can start from nothing. We started from nothing, a complete start-up, and we started up in difficult times when there was a complete melt-down in the telecommunications industry in Europe and in the West. Dot com collapsed and such. We started there, and we did not give any brown envelopes to anybody. You don't need to give brown envelopes to do business in Africa. Surprise, surprise? You know what all those people think about corruption in Africa. If you stick to your guns and do clean business, you can do clean business.

How do you see the influence of growing investment in Africa from China, a country that doesn't always demonstrate respect for human rights and good governance?

I think it is very important for everybody to watch out. We don't want to repeat our experience with the colonial powers last century or the first half of this century, during the Cold War period, we don't want to do that. We hope the Chinese also look out for that. They also don't want to go and repeat that. Times have changed. Civil society is so strong. Everybody's opinion is heard now. Any bad practice will be exposed and it will not be acceptable. I hope we don't have to shout or go and berate anybody, and we hope people will look and learn from other people's experience and behave accordingly.

What is the best case and worst case scenarios for the impact that the prize could have?

What I really hope is that we manage to get great crops of African presidents. What I would love is if the committee has so many great people that they have a problem: "Who wins this prize? We have so many good people here." That would be wonderful. I hope that the committee doesn't come one year and say, "Guess what? We're not going to give a prize this year because we're not really impressed by anybody."

How long will former leaders remain eligible?

Right now, our board is discussing the detailed mechanics of doing it. We're in the process of appointing the committee. That is the way it works. There are various options. [If you have two good candidates in the same year, one] may get it this year. The other will get it the next year. Or maybe they will split the prize, if that is feasible. I really don't know what way it will go, but as usual it will be a democratic debate within the board of the foundation, together with the committee. What is sensible will be done.

With parts of the selection process and parts of the index being up in the air, why announce the prize now?

To have any effect. If you're going to start a measured competition, you need to tell the players. There's a competition going on and these are the terms.

So presidents will start looking now and thinking about what they can do.

And to give notice to civil society. To say, "Here's what we're doing. We're coming, guys." I really hope it turns out to be good news for Africa.

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