October 5, 2016; The Conversation

Dr. Mohammed “Mo” Ibrahim is the Sudanese-British billionaire founder of the mobile communications company Celtel, which helped to advance civil society throughout Africa. The company had over 24 million mobile phone subscribers in 14 African countries when he sold it to Zain in 2005 for $3.4 billion. Like so many of his elite wealthy peers, a hero to many, Ibrahim focused his considerable resources and energy on philanthropy. He joined The Giving Pledge. He sits on the board of the anti-poverty organization co-founded by Bono, ONE. And he created the Mo Ibrahim Foundation to encourage better governance in Africa, which includes the Ibrahim Index of African Governance (IIAG).

The IIAG provides an annual assessment of the quality of governance in every African country. Originally established with the John F. Kennedy School of Government (Harvard University), presently the IIAG consists of more than 90 indicators built up into 14 sub-categories, four categories and one overall measurement of governance performance.

These indicators include official data, expert assessments and citizen surveys, provided by more than 30 independent global data institutions. This represents the most comprehensive collection of data on African governance.

Here is a summary of the 2016 (tenth) edition of the IIAG. The report highlights this finding: “Almost two-thirds of African citizens live in a country in which safety and rule of law deteriorated in the last ten years.” The index is limited in its ability to accurately rank the countries, but it is still one-of-a-kind and influential. For example, USAID considers the index as a determinant in investing its annual African-aid budget. Ibrahim is given the benefit of the doubt on each country’s standing in the index because he has no agenda. He is not using his foundation’s initiatives to make money, he is not running for office, and he lives in both the East and West.

The foundation’s other initiatives include the Ibrahim Prize, Ibrahim Forum, and the Ibrahim Fellowships with the goal of helping to change the world’s perceptions of the continent.

Of these initiatives, the Ibrahim Prize is perhaps the most aggressive. Some commentators view the prize as a form of bribery. The prize is larger than the Nobel Prize, but is not very well known. Each year, ideally, an outgoing African leader demonstrating exemplary leadership and a commitment to democracy (the willingness to cede power peacefully) is chosen to receive $5 million USD over ten years and then $200,000 USD per year for life thereafter. Starting with Nelson Mandela in 2007, the seven members of the Ibrahim Prize selection committee could find successive honorees worthy of the honor only in the years 2007 (a second honoree), 2008, 2011 and 2014.

On September 15th, Afrobarometer (“An African-led series of national public attitude surveys on democracy and governance in Africa”) offered this two-minute video that sums up current African public opinion.

Just yesterday, it was reported that Ethiopia declared a state of emergency following months of violent anti-government protests. Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn said on Sunday that this was the first time the country took such an action in 25 years and that it will last for at least six months. What does this action typically mean? The country’s security forces will likely come under the prime minister’s control and the Internet will be controlled or blocked.

Corruption is estimated to cost Africa $148 billion annually, which is more than a quarter of the continent’s GDP. No amount of debt relief, trade, donor pressure, or more aid will solve the corruption problem. Only Africans can accomplish that, and corruption is deemed by most inside and outside of Africa to be the continent’s greatest challenge. And that is one reason why Ibrahim is so pushy—he buys advertisements in Africa’s newspapers to announce the annual IIAG’s ranking of countries.

In this lengthy 2011 New Yorker article, The Dictator Index, Ken Auletta attended a conference in Ghana where Ibrahim spoke for one hour and then took questions for one and half hours. This is an excerpt of his speech, which sums up the man and his perception of the challenge Africa faces today:

“We are a very rich continent, the second-largest continent in the world, lush-green, plenty of resources. Everything we have. Yet we are the poorest people on earth. So, rich continent, poor people. After fifty years of independence, I don’t think we can continue to blame the colonialists.” In this speech, as in others, he took care to extoll Africa and its people, noting that, at the time colonialism ended, “this country Ghana, my country Sudan, Egypt, many countries had higher G.D.P.s and income per head than China, than India, than South Korea, than Malaysia, than Singapore.” The problems since are due to “a catastrophic failure of leadership and governance. There is no other explanation. We have had to a very large extent very lousy leadership in Africa: too many dictators, too many megalomaniacs, too many thieves, who bled this continent for their personal and family interest.” He continued, “All those leaders love Western culture when it comes to expensive French wine, expensive American cars, mobile phones, air-conditioning, aircraft, whatever. They love Western culture. When you speak about human rights, they say, ‘No, no, no, no. Those are Western values.’”

—James Schaffer