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.
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?'
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.
How do you feel about the rising wave of Chinese investment in Africa?
We welcome the Chinese, we welcome the Indians, we welcome anyone who would like to trade with us. Chinese demand for our raw materials helps increase prices that have been stagnant for almost 50 years. But the Chinese need to learn from the mistakes committed in the past by the West.
Let us trade honestly and with transparency. To say 'we don't care what kind of government is there, we are not interfering' - that is a little bit dodgy. If you are supporting a repressive regime, that is a political act; you cannot claim it is just trade.
When we had the military coup in Guinea last year, the African Union stood firm, and ostracized the junta. Then we had the massacre in the stadium of peacefully demonstrating people. The soldiers raped women. The same week we hear that a lifeline of $7-billion has been extended by China to the regime. What is that? Are we throwing a lifeline to a criminal regime?
So when you throw money to a regime, you can't be considered neutral?
That is the point. I say to our Chinese friends, please be friends to us, the people, because we are there, we will be there all the time. Dictators come and go. The West learned that lesson. They supported Mobutu, Idi Amin, these other guys, for whatever short-term reasons. But we have learned this expediency doesn't work in the long term.
Are Canadians doing enough in Africa?
They can afford to do more, although in general Canada has been a positive force. I noticed you are now declaring 20 countries as your priority [aid] countries and you have only eight sub-Saharan countries on the list. I hope you pay more attention to sub-Saharan Africa. Tell your friends: 'Hi guys, we are here; please don't forget us.'
How do you convince people Africa is a place to invest?
People are too shy about Africa. All you see is 10 seconds in any news bulletin. After they talk about Darfur and [Zimbabwe President Robert] Mugabe, time is up. People have the impression Africa is troublesome, all about dictatorships and bad rule, but what they see is the bad examples. Of 53 countries, there are at least 29 or 30 democracies, and we have a good work force.
Around Christmas, what you see on TV ads for Oxfam and Save the Children is famines, terrible conditions, and that creates an impression. They think we are all sick or weak, but actually we have very healthy people. Just watch the Olympics - we run faster, we jump higher, we are excellent footballers. We are good people and we can be a good place to invest. According to World Bank reports, the highest returns on investment in the last few years were always in Africa.
But what do you do about corruption?
International business carries as much or more blame. We built mobile networks in 15 countries and we did not pay bribes whatsoever. We said no one can write a cheque of more than $30,000 without going to the board. Why can't companies do that? It is not enough for boards to say 'we uphold values.' You need decisions that in reality help people out there. That raises issues of corporate governance in the West. While we are fighting for governance in public institutions, we equally need to fight for good corporate governance too.
What else do you do in your foundation?
We give a prize for African leadership, the largest prize in the world. We need to celebrate success in leadership.
What do you want people to do with the prize?
What we want is to honour African leaders who come forward, do the right thing, take their country forward and leave on time. Believe me, to be a leader of an African country is a tough job.
If somebody comes and really deals with this trouble, takes half a million out of poverty and creates jobs, rules justly and equally, isn't that wonderful? This person needs to be honoured and we need to create role models in Africa - we had [Nelson]Mandela but that is not enough. We need to produce many Mandelas.