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Opinions of Monday, 16 November 2015

Columnist: Kwame Gyasi

The Thoughts Of Dr. Mo Ibrahim

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The last time Dr. Mo Ibrahim delivered a public lecture in the Great Hall of the University of Ghana on Friday, March 12, 2010, he did not hide his anguish and contempt for the latter day leadership Africa has fostered on her citizens since the departure of the colonial masters.

Despite the great trepidation he displayed in African leadership, he also felt some hope for the future of the African continent. However as usual with those optimistic about the African continent, the premise is hinged on that small tiny elusive word: “IF”. Will that “if’ ever be realized? Your guess is as good as mine.

Dr. Mo Ibrahim is coming to Ghana again with his full team of The Mo Ibrahim Foundation this week. Again he will deliver another public lecture at the same venue, the Great Hall of the University of Ghana, Legon on Thursday, November 19, 2015 at 5.30 pm. Let us examine the paradox Dr. Mo Ibrahim tries to confront from some of the statements he made in the past:

“In Africa) one minister would come and ask you to close down the network, usually the minister of defence or the minister of interior. Then the president would come and say, ‘no, no, no! If you do that we’ll throw your guys in jail. You cannot close down the networks’. And then another person would come and say, ‘no, we’ll close the network’. On the one hand we were really helping to develop an economy and build infrastructure but sometimes we had to convince people to do what was obvious and in their own interests.”

“I am convinced that much of the bribery that occurs (in Africa) is less the idea of the African than that of the Westerner, who gets frustrated at the slow pace of negotiations, hotels he isn’t used to, and unusual foods and smells, and decides to speed things along with a bribe”

“Good governance really is at the heart of our issues in Africa. Without good governance, we can forget about sustainable development and human rights. But Africans are unwilling to accept lower standards of governance than the rest of the world. Africans know their continent is no lost course. We know that it is a place rich in talent and resources”.

“Without good governance in Africa, natural resources will continue to be squandered, (genuine) investors will continue to be deterred, and citizens will lack the physical and financial security due them. But if governments across the continent rise to the challenge, Africa will finally be able to realize its great potential”.

“We are shining a light on governance in Africa, and in so doing we are making a unique contribution to improving the quality of governance. I have seen for myself how Africa unhindered can succeed. We will continue to dispel the myth about the inability of Africans to govern well and we will continue to shine a light on failures of governance.”

The statements quoted above shows the deep seated soul searching exercise which must go through the mind of Dr. Mo Ibrahim on daily basis as he contemplates the corruption, the greed, the ineptitude, the incompetence, the indiscpline and the arrogance of the African leadership.

Who is Dr. Mo Ibrahim and what is the nature of the award he instituted called “The Ibrahim Prize for Achievement in African Leadership”? In a book titled: “AFRICA’S GREATEST ENTREPRENEURS”, authored by Ms. Moky Makura, Dr. Mo Ibrahim is described as “The Accidental Entrepreneur”. She offers a brief life history of Mo Ibrahim. She is quoted as saying:

“Mo Ibrahim was born in Eshket in northern Sudan in 1946 and was educated in Egypt. He was the son of a cotton trader and the second eldest of five siblings. At the time, Sudan was under joint Anglo-Egyptian rule and Sudan and Egypt were treated as one country with no borders until 1956. Ibrahim was an academically gifted child who excelled at school and often topped his class. He enjoyed maths and physics and it was no real surprise that he ended up at Alexandra University in Egypt studying electrical engineering. His ambition back then was to be ‘a top engineer’ and to win the Noble Prize for physics. In 1968, after university, Ibrahim went to work with the Sudanese fixed-line operator as an executive engineer. The International Telecommunications Union (ITU) had opened a telecoms training centre in Khartoum, Sudan’s capital, where Ibrahim worked as a counterpart.

“This meant that he provided support to foreign experts while being trained by the centre. During his time there, Ibrahim traveled around Europe and it was on one of those trips to Geneva that the seed for a new way of planning a mobile phone network was sown. Keen to develop his career as an engineer, at 28 and recently married, Ibrahim left Sudan with his wife to do a Masters degree in electronics and electrical engineering at Bradford University in the UK. From there he went on to Birmingham University to do a PhD in mobile communications. He was undoubtedly a brilliant student and it was clear in which direction he was headed.

“His breakthrough was to produce one of the first acknowledged mathematic models for prediction, which was how mobile networks were planned. The model was named after him and is still in use today. Although a life in the hallowed halls of academia beckoned, Ibrahim really wanted to get his hands dirty and implement his ideas in the real world. His research work for his PhD had brought him into contact with the commercial world and the corporate world beckoned. BT (British Telecoms), one of his research project clients, invited him to join them as a technical director to work on building a mobile phone network. And the rest, as they say, is history.

“After launching Britain’s first truly mobile network in January 1985, Ibrahim stayed with the organization (BT) for some time but soon got frustrated with the company’s lackluster support for his passion. So he left, with the intention of starting out on his own: ‘I really wanted to have my own freedom and that essentially was my motivation, it was not to try to make money, I just wanted to have peace of mind and to enjoy what I was doing’, he explains. Many people did not understand his decision. In those days, leaving a solid dependable organization like BT to work for yourself was just plain crazy, particularly as he had a wife and young children to look after.

“BT’s loss became the mobile communication world’s gain. In 1989, five years after the launch of BT’s mobile network, Ibrahim decided to do whatever dissatisfied executive does: ‘You go home and you take over the dining room and say “this is my office, I’m going to be a consultant!”. So I decided to go home and declare myself a consultant!’ His family supported his decision. Ibrahim’s wife, a medical doctor who was working part time, agreed that if things went terribly wrong she would go back to full employment to provide the family with a safety net. But she never needed to work full time ever again. Within four weeks of setting up his first business, Mobile Systems International (MSI), Ibrahim sold all his time upfront for the next three years. He was easily earning more than the CEO of the company he left.

“It was immediately clear to him that there was much demand for his skills. There were an increasing number of firms worldwide with GSM (Global System for Mobile) licences but very little idea of how to design networks to support them. Short of cloning himself, Ibrahim decided he was going to have to employ staff. This was the beginning of the meteoric growth of MSI. Ibrahim had no problems recruiting staff because, as he explains, ‘almost every single person wanted to leave BT with me – I had tremendous loyalty among my people. I had trained them all’.

The following year, Ibrahim moved into offices in the Docklands in London with a team of four people and by the time he sold the business 11 years later the staff complement at MSI had reached 900. His business growth was phenomenal. Ibrahim had stumbled on a cash cow and he was milking it for all it was worth. The business was launched at a time when the developed world was building its first mobile networks and he found himself designing networks literally all over the world:.

The Mo Ibrahim Foundation created by Mo Ibrahim is based on the concept that development cannot be achieved without good governance. According to the Foundation, good governance means that all of a country’s resources are harnessed to translate into improved quality of life for its people. The Foundation recognizes that while there have been improvements in many African countries recently, weaknesses in governance and capacity are central to the issues currently facing the continent.

The Foundation is committed to supporting great African leadership that will improve the economic and social prospects of the people of Africa. The Foundation’s focus is the promotion of good governance in Africa and the recognition of excellence in African leadership.

The Foundation aims to:

Stimulate debate on good governance.
Provide criteria by which citizens and civil society can hold their governments to account.

Recognize achievements in African leadership and provide a practical way in which leaders can build positive legacies on the continent when they leave office.
Support aspiring leaders for the African continent.

“In October 2007, the Mo Ibrahim Foundation made its inaugural award to President Joaquim Chissano, the former president of Mozambique. Chissano received US$5 million, to be paid out over 10 years plus a further US$200,000 every year for life”.