Mo Ibrahim: The changing face of Africa

Bob Geldof guest-edited Sunday’s edition of the Italian publication La Stampa. In the coming days we’ll be posting English language versions of the featured articles, including this one from Mo Ibrahim:

Africa has had a painful history. Even if we do not consider the evils of slavery and colonialism, independence, some 50 years ago for most African countries, coincided with the start of the Cold War. That period was devastating for the newly independent states of Africa.

While the super powers were locked in a deadly game of chess, African nations were no more than pawns – suppliers of essential raw materials and sites for military bases – but most importantly strategic ideological buffers against the advance of communism or capitalism (depending on which side you were on!).Corrupt and dictatorial regimes were propped up as dependable allies. Dictators were either “our bastards” or “their bastards”.

These policies brought disastrous consequences – we witnessed the rise of dictatorships, the culture of the “big man” and associated corruption. The end of the Cold War was probably the best thing which ever happened to Africa. At last African people were able to address their needs for state and institution building; for the democratic transformation of their societies; and above all for tackling poverty. However negative external perceptions of Africa persisted and, in many cases, continue to this day.

To take a personal example, when we decided to invest in a mobile network in Africa, all of my friends thought we were mad! Then as now, the perception of Africa as a risky investment destination prevailed. Africa seemed to lack infrastructure and a skilled workforce, disposable incomes and above all, the rule of law. This was broad-brush. It picked the failings of some corrupt regimes, and civil wars or genocide in other countries, and created a toxic mix which tarnished all 53 countries in Africa. This is like claiming that all Europeans are guilty of genocide on the evidence of what happened in the former Yugoslavia!

Yes, some African countries are failed states but let us always remember that Africa is 53 countries and most of them are peaceful and pleasant places to live and visit. In 1998 we started Celtel, an African cellular company focused on rolling out mobile networks across sub-Saharan Africa. Seven years later, by 2005, Celtel covered 14 countries and almost one third of the African population.

Mobile phone subscription rates grew prolifically in Africa and had great impact on the economic and social lives of African people. A country like the Democratic Republic of the Congo with over 50 million people had only 3,000 fixed telephone lines.

Today there are more than five million phone subscribers. Mobile phones connected Africa, enabled investment and economic activities, created jobs, improved delivery of health and education services and enriched the social lives of African people.

People who had been separated from their families by conflict were able to communicate with lost relatives, farmers were able to receive information on where to obtain the best prices for their goods, people suddenly had access to a world of new information. And we are now even seeing banking through mobile phones.

One pleasant surprise for us was to see how mobile phones supported the democratic process in Africa. The events last year in Kenya and Zimbabwe have demonstrated the power of mobile phones in connecting people and safeguarding the integrity of the election process by allowing the immediate sharing of information.

It is difficult to steal elections in the era of mobile phones. Celtel was not a charity but a successful business which rewarded the investors generously. Our investors got back an average of eight times their money. Celtel proved that Africa is open for business, and great rewards wait for those serious investors.

The World Bank reports that the return on investments in Africa was the highest in the world in the last few years. This is not to say that we have completed the journey. Africa does also still need aid. But the aid must be focused on building Africa’s infrastructure, mainly power generation, clean water, ports, and roads. That is the hardware required for Africa to grow and flourish. Aid also helps us in key areas such as health and education, or what I call the software complementing the hardware.

But the one legacy that still remains with us from those Cold War years is poor governance. To sustain and enhance our development, we must insist on better governance. Neither successful business nor successful aid is possible without it. Good governance is essential to create a modern and just society and a healthy environment for investors and wealth creation.

That is why I created our Foundation for good governance in Africa, aimed at supporting great African leadership. We focus on two main initiatives – the Ibrahim Index of African Governance which is a comprehensive tool for civil society that measures the quality of governance in every country in sub-Saharan Africa and the Ibrahim Prize which recognises and celebrates excellence in leadership in Africa.

Africa is on the pathway towards success. To reach our goals we will need investment and a strong private sector, and we will need aid. But we must always insist on the basic conditionality of good governance. Good governance is required from all, not only from African Governments but from donors and the business community as well.

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