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Dr. Mo Ibrahim, founder of the Mo Ibrahim Foundation (Leon Neal/ImageForum)
Dr. Mo Ibrahim, founder of the Mo Ibrahim Foundation (Leon Neal/ImageForum)

Mo Ibrahim's search for good governance Add to ...

Ask Mo Ibrahim how he rose to become the billionaire superstar of African business, and he will talk about luck.

Born in strife-riven Sudan, he insists he was lucky to get an education, and to be an expert in mobile communication just as the cellphone revolution was about to sweep the world. And lucky to sell his African mobile phone company, Celtel International, in 2005 to a Kuwaiti firm for $3.4-billion (U.S.), making him one of the great success stories of today's Africa.

For Mr. Ibrahim, 64, moving a continent from episodic luck to permanent opportunity is the role of governments, whose performance on behalf of citizens is wildly mixed in Africa. He has made the pursuit of good governance the mission of his London-based Mo Ibrahim Foundation, and the driving purpose of his post-business life.

By governance, he means government's ability to deliver a basket of public goods to its people, things like education, health services, rule of law and gender rights. Some countries, like Mauritius, do it quite well; others like Somalia and Zimbabwe are appallingly bad.

Mr. Ibrahim's four-year-old foundation ( The Mo Ibrahim foundation) posts a score card of all 53 countries in Africa ( called the Ibrahim Index), from top to bottom. But his greater purpose is to spark a conversation. "We are trying to have a debate about what exactly our governments are doing," Mr. Ibrahim says.

Are you a role model for young Africans?

Many African people are smarter than me - kids who could have been better. I have no claim for genius.

You have to work hard and make the right decisions, but if you don't have the opportunity, you don't make it. So I owe something to my friends, family, my people. If I can go back and help, I must do that. That is a duty.

I think the Cold War was worse for Africa than colonialism.

Is the idea of good governance progressing in African states?

We see slow improvement.

Why is it happening?

The end of the Cold War was essential for Africa. The superpowers used to have client states, to which they'd say: "It doesn't matter if you are a dictator or not, as long as you are in my camp - in the scramble for resources or votes in the UN or whatever." It made for bad company. I think the Cold War was worse for Africa than colonialism.

Now, we are starting to notice the rise of the civil society in Africa. And new technology: There are 450 million mobile phones in Africa now, out of 950 million people, so it has really enabled people to communicate with each other.

And what about cellphone banking?

That is happening in Africa more than anywhere else. You will see a lot of wonderful applications where Africa is leap-frogging, not because we are necessarily smarter but because we need that. Retail banking in Africa is very weak. You can't go to a village and get money from an ATM or visit a branch of the bank. So people have to use the Internet.

Do you agree with those who say aid is the problem, not the solution?

In most part, it is a silly discussion. Whenever there is disaster or famine somewhere, we cannot stand by and watch. On HIV, malaria, Darfur, or Somalia, we need to help our brothers and sisters. So there is not much discussion about humanitarian aid.

And we must really focus on developmental aid. We need to deliver better aid and untied aid. Actually, we need to deliver aid to end aid. Nobody in Africa loves to be a beggar, or a recipient of aid. Everywhere I go in Africa, people say 'when are we going to stand up on our feet?'

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Africa as a continent is rich, but Africans as a people are poor. The answer is governance. We really need to get our act together to improve the quality of life of our people. Developmental aid will speed up this process.

What about just borrowing more capital from banks?

That is just a fantasy. Unfortunately, our malfunctioning banking system doesn't deal with Africa. They think Africa is too risky. You cannot rely on Goldman Sachs or whoever to really help - those guys just love subprime mortgages and all the other crap.

We should also support projects that help economic integration. Africa is disconnected. Internal African trade is about 8 per cent of the trade total. In Africa, we have 53 little countries and we are intentionally determined not to communicate and trade and move goods between each other. It's stupid.

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