Africa: Viable Nations Depend on Integrating Economies, Says Business Leader

Mo Ibrahim speaking during his Foundation's discussion forum on November 15, 2009 in Dar es Salaam.
5 October 2009

Ahead of Monday's announcement of the 2009 Ibrahim Index of Governance, the survey which ranks the quality of Africa's governments, Mo Ibrahim, the Sudanese-born cellphone pioneer who founded the index, sat down with AllAfrica's editors. Excerpts:

Why did you decide to focus your philanthropy on the governance index and the leadership prize?

There's no reason for us to be poor or hungry or backward, because Africa is a very rich continent. It is one of the largest continents on the earth. There are only 900 million Africans – two-thirds of India. It's not like we are overpopulated. And we have all these great natural resources.

The main problem impeding our development is governance – or rather the lack of it. All good things start from good governance; all bad things start from bad governance – and that's an area that's rather sensitive for anybody to address. Africans themselves need to sort it out. It isn't appropriate for others, given commercial and other interests, to be involved. We, as an African foundation, decided to take up this issue.

What is good governance? Is it a lack of corruption? Transparency? Is it democracy, participation, human rights? Is it economic opportunity? Is it women's and social rights? Is it health? Is it a good education system? Is it jobs for the kids? Actually, it is all of this.

So we embarked on this ambitious project to measure the quality of governance in every African country. This is the third year we are producing the index. It is a living project. It is evolving and improving as we understand more of the issues.

The interesting thing now is the Africanization of the process of producing the index. More and more African institutions are helping to produce this index. This year we have included North Africa, so it is covering all 53 states of the African Union. We also worked more on defining the parameters or the components of the index. Instead of 58 parameters, we are measuring 82 or 83 parameters.

What are the major obstacles you face in compiling the index?

The process threw up a number of interesting issues. For example, take poverty. We could not find any reliable measurements of poverty in Africa – a very important component. We found data to be patchy, very old and sometimes non-existent. We tried to find how many Africans are living on less than one dollar or less than two dollars [a day]. We had to drop that important indicator, unfortunately.

The problem is that the statistical offices in African countries have been neglected. They sort of vanished or died, and nobody is paying attention to that, neither the governments, the internationals, multilaterals or the donors. That raises a very important question. How are we going to measure the Millennium Development Goals? How do we measure effectiveness of aid? We throw billions of dollars at the aid industry and yet we are unable to [ascertain] the outcome. This is a major problem that we ask all the stakeholders to pay attention to and try to help us solve.

By compiling this data and publishing the report, are you running the risk that you reinforce negative images of Africa?

No, not at all. The index doesn't say Africa is bad. The index shows countries that are doing well; it shows countries which are doing badly. More importantly it shows the movement of countries, how they're moving over time.

Our index last year showed, for example, that the situation of human rights improved in Africa. This year I think that about 26 or 27 countries have improved in general, so it is not at all meant to denigrate. It's an honest picture of what's going on. It is a mirror. Some of us are good looking; we look beautiful in the mirror. Some of us are ugly and are going to look ugly because the mirror will not lie. Don't blame the mirror!

What does the Index say about the impact of conflict on African countries?

It points out the obvious: the countries which scored very badly all have internal conflicts, civil wars. When we address armed conflicts, we always think of how many people died. But conflict also destroys all other services. It destroys education. How can you have schools running when you have armed conflict? It impedes the delivery of health services. There's no economic activity, so how can you create jobs? It makes it absolutely clear that the first thing we need to address is to stop all these conflicts. They are self-inflicted wounds. We need to actively pursue peace and security on the continent. It is very important to allow the natural development of countries and the delivery of services for our population.

What are the best mechanisms for building peace?

The African Union is getting more active. African elders are playing an increasingly important role – Kofi Annan in Kenya, Graça Machel, who also worked in Kenya and Sudan, [Joaquim] Chissano in Uganda. I also salute the efforts by Thabo Mbeki in Sudan. African civil society has a big role to play. It's really a collective process, but the heart of it is the need for real leadership.

We love President Chissano in the foundation. Essentially what he did was stop the civil war in his country [Mozambique]. Here is a leader who extended his hand to his enemy and said, "Look, I don't like it. But you are citizens of the country. Instead of fighting each other in the bush and all of these atrocities, come and let's fight peacefully in elections and good luck to everybody." He was able to get those people to Maputo, and they were not harmed or badly treated. He achieved peace in his country. How many lives did he save?

If [Sudanese leader Omar al-Bashir] did this, how many lives would he save? Look at [former South African President Nelson] Mandela. Who thought we were going to see a peaceful transition of power in South Africa? Everybody was expecting a bloodbath in South Africa, but it takes leadership of a man like Mandela to come and help that peaceful transition. The role of African presidents and leaders is immense. We hope African leaders will rise up and ensure an end to conflicts in their countries.

Is that why you decided to create the Ibrahim Prize for Achievement in African Leadership?

There are a number of reasons why we have this prize. Number one is we genuinely need to celebrate success in African leadership. An effective leadership can save lives, can help development, take people out of poverty, and change the lives of people. When it's done properly, it is a massive achievement and needs to be celebrated.

The second reason is the image of Africa outside of Africa. We have good people but nobody speaks about those people.

Every time I speak in conferences in Europe, I ask the audience: if you know Idi Amin, Mobutu, General Abacha, raise your hands. Everybody raises their hands. If you know Festus Mogae raise your hands. Two or three people raise their hands, yet Festus Mogae is a wonderful leader. Botswana had three great leaders in succession. They hand over and go back to civil society. Big deal. Everybody leaves office with clean hands. [Botswana] is moving up to a middle-income country. This is a great achievement. Why has the story of Botswana not been told? (Mogae received the prize last year and Chissano in 2007.)

When Chissano won his prize, we could not contact him. We went to the press conference and our brother Kofi [Annan] stood and read the citation and then the press started to ask questions. Lo and behold, the third question was what was the reaction of Chissano when you told him? And [Annan] said, "I do not know because I couldn't find him to tell him."

That day in the afternoon somebody in his office … said, "He's in the bush. He's trying to find [rebel leader Joseph] Kony to procure peace between the Ugandan government and [the Lord's Resistance Army]. He's somewhere on the border between Sudan and Uganda. There's no communication. Please if you reach him, congratulate him - it's his 68th birthday."

He's not a young man, but he's not sitting in his garden around the swimming pool with his friends, having a party, celebrating his birthday. He's in the bush incommunicado, sleeping rough, eating rough, trying to achieve peace in countries that are 3,000 miles away from his own. This is African leadership; these are responsible people who do the right thing, away from the lights. There are no TV cameras; he's just doing it quietly.

There are wonderful people in Africa. People knew Mandela because of the situation in South Africa, but we have many Mandelas. It is our duty to honor those people and tell the world about those success stories. When taxpayers here [in the United States] – and I'm grateful to them as an African – reach into their pockets to give money to fight disease or famine, they need to know that Africans themselves are also doing the right thing. That we are not just a bunch of beggars doing nothing, not just waiting for hand outs. All our friends in the west need to know we have leaders like Chissano.

During your prize ceremony in November, you have selected three topics for discussion – food security, climate change and economic integration in Africa. Why these issues?

Seventy percent of African people are involved in agriculture, yet we cannot feed ourselves. The agriculture sector is ineffective, unproductive. We cannot deny the responsibility of African governments themselves.

About seven or eight years ago, African presidents decided that 10 percent of their national budgets would be allocated to the agriculture sector. Two months ago, in Addis Ababa, I checked with the African Union and was shocked to find that only three countries complied with their own decision. Nobody imposed this decision on the African governments. It was their own decision and still they do not honor it. Is that not the responsibility of governments? Does that not raise the issue of governance?

If Africa cannot make food, are we going to make airplanes, are we going to make computers? How are we going to earn our living? It's a scandal. Unless we take responsibility, take ownership ourselves, nothing will happen, and we'll keep coming back to: "Please come and help us; we have a famine here." That is not acceptable.

On the issue of climate change, we [in Africa] are going to suffer more from climate change and from desertification – we've been suffering already from this – and it's obvious we did not put this carbon [in the air]. How can we adapt and mitigate, how can we develop in a green fashion when our economies have been hit due to the excesses of other developed nations? We want justice, and we need to discuss this.

And regional integration?

In this global economy, in this connected world, how can 53 very small African economies develop and go forward? The numbers look terrible. Four percent of African trade is inter-African trade. Four percent of our trade is among ourselves. How can we survive like this? We have a lot of landlocked countries, and I always wonder how these countries manage. Where does their trade go? Does it jump over the neighboring countries or what?

What we see is a terrible legacy of colonialism. When client countries were seen as extended farms for the mother country, they had only one road leading to the port, taking cotton or maize to the mother country and bringing back some goods, and that's it. Now that is a 50-year-old model. We no longer have mother countries; we no longer have client countries, yet we have not developed a road network between ourselves. We kept our barriers. We've had regional economic institutions in Africa for many years, but we don't really see any progress on the ground.

In Germany or France or Britain, each of them has bigger economy than all of Africa put together. Yet, they formed the European Union to have economic integration and break down barriers. You now drive your goods from Berlin to Scotland non-stop and at no extra cost. No people stopping you every ten miles, asking you to fill forms, to pay a small bribe that delays you. Who do we think we are – 53 little economies trading with God knows whom? The fact is a large number of African countries are not viable. If they were companies, they would have been declared bankrupt. You switch off the light, you say: bye-bye, it doesn't work.

Why do we have this problem with regional projects? We have wonderful rivers to generate clean power, which we can use to light up all of Africa. Yet everybody wants to build their own little stations. Everybody wants to do their own little thing. It doesn't work. The cost per unit becomes too high. Just ask any businessman. You need scale for your business to run, reduce your costs, reduce your prices and make sure you're viable. So we really must address the whole issue here with sanity.

But is there the political will in Africa to do this?

I'm not saying that African countries need to drop their colorful flags or their national anthems. Please, keep it, but integrate your economies! Open your borders, let goods and people move around freely, then we can really move forward.

The sooner we address this, the better. Unless we address this problem, I don't think there is a future.


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