MOHAMED “Mo” Ibrahim is a celebrated Sudanese African whose standing as a role model parallels Mandela and Obama in my books. The only difference is, he is a serial entrepreneur, a billionaire who made his fortune through his Celtel mobile telephone empire, spanning 15 countries in Africa servicing 25 million of its citizens.
He sold Celtel to MTC Kuwait for US$3.4 billion. Mo appears semi-retired, running his much-vaunted Mo Ibrahim Foundation, which seeks to enhance democracy in Africa by rewarding past Presidents who voluntarily give up power through democratic elections.
The prize money is a once-off US$5 million and an extra US$200,000 a year for the rest of their lives for the winner to do so-called charity work. Previous recipients are Joachim Chissano of Mozambique (2007) and Festus Mogae of Botswana (2008).
For this, Mo has been lauded with the philanthropist sound-bite from the usual pundits in the West who do no have a clue what Africa needs. According to him, the prize is a process of re-branding Africa, a concept which may find resonance with Deputy Prime Minister Professor Arthur Mutambara of Zimbabwe. The latter was roundly reprimanded by African leaders for suggesting the same.
I have to hand it to him, Mo has pushed boundaries, which is why he is the billionaire that he is. I applaud him for the vision of pioneering mobile telephony not just in Africa but in Europe.
On October 19, 2009, the Prize Committee which is independent of the board announced there were no worthy winners for 2009 when bookmakers were tipping South Africa’s Thabo Mbeki and Ghana’s John Kufuor. Before this announcement, Mo appeared on BBC World Service lamenting lack of investment in Africa by Western corporates because of tyrants and corruption.
That Africa is plagued by bad politics is not in dispute. However, Mo’s current effort to stem this tide is at cross-purposes with what he hopes to achieve. Calling for the re-branding of Africa is one thing; executing this process is quite another and I don’t think the Mo Ibrahim Foundation is the best model for that.
I find it fundamentally wrong that in spite of his earlier vision which culminated in improving Africa’s telephony, Mo now sees it fit to invest in the past rather than the future by dolling out freebies to an already privileged African elite so they can spend the rest of the lives globe-trotting from one five star hotel to another whilst rubbing their under-bellies.
Africa is bursting at the seams with intellectual capital and potential entrepreneurs who are stuck in dead-end-go-nowhere jobs in Western capitals curtailed by lack of access to cheap capital to monetise their ideas but are prepared to skip if someone like Mo can see past his current quagmire to actually invest in young talent.
By his own admission, he was frustrated when he left BT Cellnet, now O2 in 1988. Providing for a few token scholarships does not quite pass for meaningful investment in light of the gigantic Mo Ibrahim Prize money. Does he really think Madiba spent 27 years in prison so he could win a Nobel Prize? True public service is an inclination, not an inducement.
Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe has been thumbing his nose at everyone refusing to give up power. Hypothetically, let’s assume he gets tempted and magnanimous Mo decided to reward him. What is he going to need the money for, privileged already as he is?
Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo is never going to need that money too should he retire. It’s loose change to him. But he will gladly snatch it, if offered.
Granted, these two examples are cheap shots from me. Lieutenant General Seretse Ian Khama, from the so-called African model democracy isn’t going to need this money either.
I challenge Mo to set up an investment vehicle to which he can commit similar amounts of funds or more, ear-marked for up-coming African entrepreneurs based in Africa and abroad, who can pitch their ideas to him and his able panel without having to go through banks which require collateral. Not only would this improve Mo’s own portfolio, but has the potential to spawn several business people of the same calibre as him to help Africa’s future.
African needs to value-add and create jobs so people can stop fighting for resources. This is re-branding Africa and it’s not rocket science. With a PhD in Electrical Engineering, Mo should not find this difficult to take in.
Sequoia Capital venture capitalists responsible for realising start-ups such as Apple Inc, Cisco, Google, PayPal, Yahoo and YouTube among others, recommend that entrepreneurs should start with only a little money, which fosters discipline and focus. Imagine what US$200,000 clean capital to be accounted for, from Mo (and similar entrepreneurs) would do to a young brain with a bankable business idea?
According to Mo, the greedy bankers largely blamed for the credit crunch, couldn’t lend him money to grow his business even when Celtel was making US$300 million a year and growing at 50 % annually, because Africa was considered risky, and the scandalous bankers were only interested in the “toxic” mortgage market.
Using the same logic, where does he think a young African woman equipped with nothing but innovative ideas will get the money from when he himself seems hell-bent on throwing money into a bottomless pit?
With all due respect to Dr. Mohamed “Mo” Ibrahim, if he doesn’t see the need to meaningfully invest in Africa’s young at this stage, then it’s obvious to me he is past his prime. He has had his time.
I would be tempted to say Mo should keep quiet and drift into the sunset along with his peers whom he strives to please. History will judge him accordingly.
Young African entrepreneurs will find their way on their own, the same way Mo did when he was young. His Mo Ibrahim Foundation will remain nothing but dead money; a disingenuous and sanctimonious ego-trip scoffed at by some of its intended beneficiaries — and they are certainly not Africa’s poor.