Mo Ibrahim has just given US$ 5m to the recently retired president of the West African nation of Niger, one of the world’s most impoverished countries. Not everyone thinks this was a smart move.

“The Economist says it was a mistake,” he notes, with a wry smile, when we speak a few days afterward, back in March. “But the Financial Times wrote an editorial in favor.”

Robust debate was exactly what the Sudanese billionaire hoped for when he launched the Ibrahim Prize for Achievement in African Leadership 14 years ago — aiming to encourage good governance in Africa by honoring former national leaders who are democratically elected; govern well; and leave office willingly, in a manner compatible with their national constitution.

That has proved a demanding standard. On several occasions the prize has been withheld for lack of a suitable candidate, which is what The Economist suggested might have been the right thing to do this year, too. Yet, for all his flaws, Mahamadou Issoufou’s decision to be the first president in Niger’s history to leave through a peaceful, democratic transfer of power “was exactly the sort of thing we had in mind when we created the prize,” says Ibrahim.

It sent a message that is particularly urgent right now, Ibrahim explains, during what has “not been a good year for democracy in Africa, so many terrible elections and leaders not stepping down.” (Though Africa has not been alone in that failure, he adds, noting that Africa’s leaders at least “took the pandemic seriously, with decisive action,” unlike others elsewhere he could mention.)

‍Governance Matters

COVID-19 has hit Africa hard on many fronts, from health to governance to its severely depressed economy. Ibrahim has been an outspoken critic of vaccine nationalism (“Why don’t rich countries understand that it is in their self interest to vaccinate everyone?”) and for a major economic stimulus for Africa from the international community. Yet despite so many difficulties and setbacks, he is convinced that this rotten year will prove to be a mere blip on a long-term upward trend for the continent, progress that he believes will be built on the foundation of better governance.

Now 75, the avuncular “Mo,” as everyone calls him, is engagingly argumentative, adeptly wrapping sharp questions and observations in a warm, irreverent humor as he puffs on his favorite pipe. One of nature’s born optimists, he is pinning his hopes above all on the nearly 60% of Africans who are currently aged under 25. Young Africans are now demanding better governance, he says, because they increasingly understand that it is the key to having the better lives they want — better education, better jobs, better health care, better legal protections.

“The answer to Nelson Mandela’s question — ‘Africa is rich, so why are Africans so poor?’ — is that we need to govern ourselves better,” he says.

Changing Tides

Recent dramatic changes in the land of his birth, where protests led by the young helped oust Sudan’s president, Omar al-Bashir, after three decades of autocratic misrule, are indicative of a broader trend in what Africa’s youth expect from their leaders, he says.

One reason today’s young Africans are demanding better governance? They are far better informed than their predecessors, thanks to the mobile phones that Ibrahim made his fortune popularizing in Africa. Cameras on phones are especially effective in reducing everyday corruption, adds Ibrahim, who famously insists he has never paid a bribe despite frequently being asked to do so.

It was after 2005, when he sold Celtel, the pioneering African mobile phone company he launched after a long career in London at British Telecom, that Ibrahim turned to philanthropy. The challenges he had to overcome in his business life helped convince Ibrahim to focus his giving on improving governance, as did advice he sought from African leaders he admired, including Nelson Mandela and former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan.

Playing the Long Game

Deciding to make the prize one of the most generous in the history of philanthropic awards was a smart move, guaranteeing it would get attention. Equally smart was his decision not to be part of the prize jury, to ensure there would be no risk of him exercising excessive influence over the result.

But while the prize is the most high-profile part of his philanthropy, his “most important work” has been the creation of the Ibrahim Index of African Governance, a comprehensive annual empirical analysis of the quality of governance in every African country. Last year, the overall quality of governance fell slightly from the year before, for the first time since the index was launched in 2010, mostly due to backsliding on human rights, security, and the rule of law. Still, for the period as a whole, the index provides plenty of evidence to support Ibrahim’s claim that “we are winning in the long term” on governance.

Africa’s political and business leaders are clearly listening, given how many of them would turn up — in pre-pandemic times — to his foundation’s annual Ibrahim Governance Weekend, which different African countries compete to host. Taking on topics such as how to improve public service in Africa or making free trade work on the continent, the highlights of the meeting are the entertaining set-piece interviews in which Ibrahim jovially takes to task some of the continent’s most powerful leaders. “I can’t keep my mouth shut, so I’m not sure I’ll be allowed to leave the country,” he says before questioning President Paul Kagame of Rwanda at the 2018 Ibrahim Governance Weekend hosted in the landlocked African nation.

When Philanthropy Meets Politics

Ibrahim clearly loves to wade into the weeds of governance and politics, an interest he traces back to growing up in the era of decolonization (though, for Africa’s development, he believes the end of the Cold War was a more significant turning point, as it reduced the amount of money going to corrupt leaders of politically-aligned client states). As well as incentivizing good leadership at the top, he sees an urgent need to encourage more young people to enter politics and civil society “so we produce the good leaders we need.” In Africa today, he says, “politics is not seen as a decent profession. If you want to be respected you go into business.”

He recognizes that his giving is political, in certain respects, “more activism and campaigning than what you call philanthropy in the West.” That may be why so few other philanthropists have joined his fight for better governance. Non-African philanthropists who talk about governance risk being branded as foreign meddlers, and this sets back the cause. Most of the wealthiest Africans, on the other hand, are still working, and know that if they speak out against, say, corruption or a lack of democracy “it will often be bad for their business.” Hopefully as more rich Africans retire they will join the fight, says Ibrahim, but for now perhaps the most that can be expected of them is more conventional charitable giving to schools, hospitals, and the like.

Changing the Conversation

In 2007, just after the first Prize for Achievement in African Leadership was awarded, I wrote an article about which of the new generation of philanthropists would be most relevant in the fight against poverty as we entered the 2020s. Although “the Gates Foundation will certainly have had an immense impact on poverty reduction,” I argued, “the most effective new players will be those that generate better governance in developing countries.” Moreover, if his prize were to succeed in inspiring a broad debate within Africa about what constitutes good governance, “its leverage, and impact, could make Dr. Ibrahim the most effective new player of them all.” It still may be too soon to say that, but if Ibrahim’s optimistic outlook is right, it won’t be long. Compared with much other philanthropy, by changing the conversation about governance in Africa, Mo’s money already seems well spent.