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How a billionaire is cutting Africa’s ‘big men’ down to size

Mo Ibrahim addresses the crowd at the Mo Ibrahim Foundation Annual Governance Weekend in Dakar, Senegal

Tanya Bindra

Mo Ibrahim is working the room. Tossing off his jacket, rolling up his sleeves and prowling the convention room's stage with microphone in hand, the Sudanese billionaire banters with Macky Sall, the President of Senegal. Suddenly he urges the audience to interrogate Mr. Sall, promising that nobody will be arrested or shot for impudent questions.

The crowd of media executives loves his brazenness, roaring with laughter. The Senegalese leader looks a little shocked; clearly, he isn't accustomed to being put on the spot. Still, he plays along – he perhaps remembers that Mr. Ibrahim finances a handsome reward for African heads of state deemed to be "democratic" enough.

Perhaps only this remarkable philanthropist can get away with such irreverence toward an African ruler, yet he wants such candid discussion to become the norm. The traditional "big men" of African politics should be neither feared nor worshipped, he says; they should be accountable to their fellow citizens in free and open debate.

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It's not just a distant dream. With his vast wealth and inexhaustible energy, Mr. Ibrahim is shaping a new generation of African politicians. Among them are younger leaders, like Mr. Sall, who has agreed to submit to Mr. Ibrahim's grilling within months of defeating an incumbent who had been in office more than a decade and was seeking a third term at the age of 85. Even so, the election was impressively fair, and Abdoulaye Wade accepted his defeat.

After cajoling his audience into firing questions at the President, Mr. Ibrahim takes a few minutes over an espresso to reflect on his campaign against Africa's old guard of corrupt and dictatorial leaders. "It's a new world," he says, speaking as rapidly and passionately as he did onstage. "We have some wonderful leaders now. We still have dinosaurs – but you know what happened to dinosaurs."

It has been less than seven years since he used the billions he earned as a pioneering entrepreneur in mobile phones to create the London-based Mo Ibrahim Foundation. Its purpose is to foster good governance and to administer a $5-million prize "for achievement in African leadership" – the world's most lucrative annual award.

As a result, he says, it is no longer "taboo" to talk about leadership. "Because of the prize, there's a lot of noise around this. Once people start to talk, … that's what will change the game. We have to get out of the assumption that leaders are some kind of pharaohs. They are just human beings like us."

As well as the annual search for a model politician – someone of great achievement who has left office democratically – Mr. Ibrahim is promoting reform with an independent index to measure the successes and failures of African governments. (Senegal ranks 16th among the 52 nations surveyed.)

These innovative campaigns, with their strict committees and scientific data, are a full-out assault on the venality and arrogance typical of African rulers for decades.

Some critics say the money would be better spent on the poor, rather than going into the pockets of politicians. Yet there is little doubt that his efforts have helped to shift the African agenda, throwing a spotlight on such uncomfortable issues as authoritarianism and graft.

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The prize is an incentive, promoting clean, honest leadership, and Mr. Ibrahim helps to defuse politicians' authoritarian streak by using a deft mixture of praise and criticism to nudge them toward a genuine conversation with their citizens.

"Don't you think it's wonderful that this new generation of African leaders can sit here among us?" he asks his audience after sparring with Mr. Sall. "We're not criminals, we're not terrorists – we just want to have this dialogue."

The son of a cotton-industry clerk from northern Sudan, Mr. Ibrahim rose from humble beginnings to become a cellphone tycoon. He was one of the first entrepreneurs to understand the vast potential of mobile technology in Africa – but also was a strict anti-corruption campaigner, prohibiting any payments above $30,000 without the signatures of his entire board of directors. The success of those rules was a key influence on his honest-government projects of today.

After studying electrical engineering in Britain in the 1970s, Mr. Ibrahim joined British Telecom, where he helped to develop its first cellphone service. Resigning in frustration at its bureaucracy, he created a mobile-technology consulting firm, which he sold for $916-million in 2000.

He then launched his own cellphone operating company, Celtel, which acquired cheap licences across Africa at a time when nobody thought much of its potential. Before long, Celtel was flourishing in 13 countries, and in 2005 he sold it to a Kuwaiti company for $3.4-billion (U.S.).

Today, at the age of 67, he uses his carefully crafted irreverence to break down the barriers between the rulers and the ruled. Onstage, he addresses Senegal's top officials as "brothers and sisters," and explains to the audience: "I prefer this over 'Your Highnesses.' All of you are important. We're all in the same trench, fighting for good governance and human rights."

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He praises some rulers, but never hesitates to challenge autocratic tendencies, and scoffs when someone proposes a state-run news agency: "Nobody wants to watch official media." He remembers growing up in Sudan with only one newspaper and one broadcaster, both state-controlled, both endlessly obsessed with documenting the president's daily schedule.

He has no patience for politicians who bully the media. "The media are a mirror," he says. "If you look in the mirror and you see something ugly, maybe you're ugly." The audience laughs and cheers.

Nor does he have any patience for Africa's reverential attitude toward its former liberation movements, such as South Africa's ruling African National Congress. He notes that the ANC has introduced a secrecy law to tighten controls on state information – the kind of law it would have fought in the apartheid era.

"Who is going to liberate us from the liberators?" he asks. "If you're a South African journalist, you're under threat for publishing legitimate information. We can't muzzle them and threaten them with prison if they uncover corruption."

Mr. Ibrahim's foundation has been criticized for failing to award the leadership prize in three of the past six years. Some cite this as proof that Africa has no worthy leaders – a critique that frustrates him. "This is a prize for exceptional performance," he insists. "If this was a European or Asian prize, how many leaders would you find? We challenge you – give us names."

Investors are buzzing about the rise of Africa as an emerging market these days, but Mr. Ibrahim worries that its profits are going to a tiny minority. One of his favourite themes is the need for greater integration of Africa's 54 countries. It could be a huge boost, he says, but it is stalled by slow-moving politicians and anti-migrant prejudices.

"There isn't the political will to push these policies forward," he says. "A lot of our people are still afraid of each other. It's xenophobia. Where would China be today if it was 54 countries? Africa will be much stronger when we achieve freedom of movement of goods, capital and people. We are not poor – we are poorly managed."

And with that, he leaps to his feet, tells his assistants to pay for his espresso and rushes off to a car waiting to take him to his next meeting.

The Ibrahim Prize

How to qualify

The Ibrahim Prize for Achievement in African Leadership goes to a former head of state who was democratically elected, left office in the past three years, served no longer than constitutionally mandated and was an exceptional leader.

The largest prize awarded annually (if a suitable recipient is found) provides $5-million (U.S.) over 10 years, plus $200,000 a year for life thereafter and $200,000 a year for public-interest activities – to ensure Africa continues to benefit from exceptional leaders after leaving office.

Honour roll

2007 Joaquim Alberto Chissano for "leading Mozambique from conflict to peace and democracy." Nelson Mandela received an honorary award.

2008 Festus Gontebanye Mogae for "careful stewardship of the economy and management of Botswana's mineral resources, a tough stance on corruption, and success in combatting HIV/AIDS."

2011 Pedro de Verona Rodrigues Pires for "transforming Cape Verde into an African success story, recognized for good governance, human rights, prosperity and social development."

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