October 30, 2007

Mo's money, less problems?

For most Africans, Mo Ibrahim is probably better known for founding Celtel - the telecommunications empire that helped make Africa the first continent where cell phones outnumber landlines - than his efforts to promote good governance across the continent.

In Zambia, the company's trademark red and yellow livery is plastered on newspapers, storefronts and even public schools under the ever-present slogan of 'Making Life Better'. It's certainly more visible than any signs of accountable leadership, but the Sudanese-born Mr. Ibrahim is trying to change all that.

Having already made life better for Celtel’s 20 million subscribers in Africa - where the company has pioneered networks in rural areas and operates in war-scarred countries like DR Congo and Chad - he sold his empire for a small fortune in 2005 and 'retired' to start a personal investment fund in a rather volatile commodity: African governance.

As the Water Cooler reported, the newly-minted Ibrahim Index of African Governance uses five different "quantifiable and objective" criteria to judge how effectively a given country is governed. As expected, the obscure but apparently well-governed island nations of Mauritius and Seychelles topped the list while ungovernable Somalia finished an ignoble last.

Last week, Mr. Ibrahim's foundation finally unveiled its much-hyped Prize for Achievement in African Leadership, a $5 million prize awarded to a former president of Mozambique, Joaquim Chissano. The field was limited to heads of state who have left office in the past three years, not exactly a large group in a continent where leaders cling to power past constitutional and rational limitations. Organizers have already admitted it is unlikely the prize will be awarded annually for wont of suitable candidates.

So what long-term effects (if any) will the existence of such a prize have on African governance? Mr. Chissano won for negotiating an end to his country’s 16-year civil war, initiating multi-party elections and stepping down on time. Will the prospect of a large retirement nest egg encourage similar magnanimity amongst his contemporaries? Sadly, I doubt it.

The index is surely a useful tool for policy-makers and the award does shine sorely needed light on continental governance, but for deeply entrenched and enriched African leaders, the prospect of maybe winning some retirement money is unlikely to motivate a paradigm-shift of governance. The phalanx of patronage that surrounds the Mugabes, al-Bashirs and Musevenis of Africa means that leaving office is about more than losing power. It’s a lifestyle change that affects your inner circle of friends, family and political supporters, and is unlikely to be peacefully influenced by outsiders.

Encouraging good governance – so that African leaders preside over peaceful democracies where decisions that are made for the benefit of more than a privileged few – was probably better fostered by Celtel than Mr. Ibrahim’s current venture. Bringing connectivity to the rural areas of some of the continent’s worst-governed countries has allowed the disenfranchised to access and share political information like never before. It has brought the Internet to affordable handsets that are, increasingly, the African gateway to the web.

Mr. Ibrahim has often said in interviews that homegrown success in the private sector is the key to his continent’s salvation; that, like him, enterprising Africans need the economic tools to succeed no matter the government of the day. Perhaps an investment award for Africa's most innovative business idea or a loans programs for small business would see Mr. Ibrahim directly making life better in Africa once again.

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