Finding opportunities and sorting them out from grand possibilities is what Mo Ibrahim has done throughout his lifetime. However, in attempting to change the perceptions of an entire continent, Ibrahim has elevated the scale of his ambitions to a different realm altogether.

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Low-key and unassuming but with a liberal sprinkling of gravitas, Ibrahim has already played a critical role in ushering in the mobile revolution in Africa and in stimulating business on the continent. He helped create the fastest growing mobile phone market in the world when most of the large operators balked at the idea of doing business in Africa. The consequent mobile penetration holds the promise of allowing Africans to leapfrog their pervasive infrastructure afflictions and embrace the promises of modernization and technological advance.

Ibrahim was born in Sudan in 1946 and describes himself as Nubian. Therein may lay the psychological genesis of his attempt and efforts to transform the continent where he traces his heritage. The seeds of his transformative vision are embedded in his psychological disposition, background and experiences.

Ibrahim specialized in the then-unfashionable field of mobile communications and did some pioneering work in the reuse of radio frequencies and control of radio waves. After transitioning from academia to business, he spent a frustrating tenure with British Telecom (BT) as the technical director of Cellnet (now O2).

After leaving BT, Ibrahim formed MSI (Mobile Systems International), designing technical specifications for operators. Even here he set a precedent and in a pre-share-owning culture, the employees of MSI held 30 percent of the stock when it was sold to Marconi for $916 million in early 2000. Similarly when his next company, Celtel, was sold for $3.4 billion in 2004, the staff shared $500 million, and 100 people, most of them African, became millionaires.

Now his latest venture, under the aegis of the Mo Ibrahim Foundation (MIF), which was established in 2006, entails nothing less than the rebranding of Africa by supporting good governance and exceptional leadership on the African continent. The foundation, through its work, is both shining the light on critical issues confronting Africa and offering Africans the enabling levers that can help transform the potential and the promise of the continent.

Africa is blessed with an abundance of resources, both natural and human. The governance challenge is to harness these resources to transform the living standards of people across the continent. Failure of governance and leadership is largely responsible for the dismal scenario that blunts and corrodes Africa’s potential.

A paradigmatic shift in the social ethos of the continent can only happen when leaders shape the way in crafting new political narratives, underpinned by socially inclusive, sustainable and people centric themes. MIF celebrates the ideals of leadership through the $5 million Ibrahim Prize for Achievement in African Leadership. The prize is awarded to an African executive head of state or government who has been elected democratically and leaves office within the constitutionally mandated term.

The past laureates such as Joaquim Chissano, (Mozambique), Festus Mogae (Botswana) and Nelson Mandela (South Africa) embody the desired expression of leadership that promises to ameliorate Africa’s afflictions and address its formidable challenges. To dissolve the feelings of indifference and cynicism that exist in and about Africa, the continent needs heroes who exemplify enlightened and dedicated leadership, responsive to the needs of every single individual within their jurisdiction.

Of course it would be foolhardy to confuse the prize as putting a price on good leadership. The symbolic intent of the prize in drawing attention and eliciting responses of the people can be instrumental in demanding enduring and consistent responses from the leaders. As Mo Ibrahim’s daughter, Hadeel, who is also the founding executive director of the Mo Ibrahim Foundation, says, “People respond partly to the notion of the prize, but also to Mo Ibrahim as someone who will get things done … and it is only fitting that he gives a prize for excellence, because he is consumed by the desire for excellence in all he does.”

However, there is a dearth of inspired leadership on the African continent, and this was manifested in the damning conclusion of the Mo Ibrahim Foundation Prize Committee when it, for 2013, declared that after reviewing a number of eligible candidates, “… none met the criteria needed to win this award.” Rather than diluting the prize for the sake of hollow continuity, the foundation has always chosen not to award the prize when it has been unable to find a candidate fulfilling its exacting criteria.

This unflinching refusal to compromise signals a rare integrity and helps uphold the exalted determinants of excellence in leadership and governance. Further, this can also serve to focus public scrutiny on the glaring vacuity of leadership confronting our societies and invite our collective energies to advance the pursuit.

Increasingly, though, it is not the prize that is the main focus of the Mo Ibrahim Foundation’s work but rather the Mo Ibrahim Index of African Governance, a comprehensive ranking of African countries according to governance quality. Hadeel Ibrahim stated that, “All of us in the foundation would now say the index is the most important aspect of what we do. Only one person can benefit from the prize, but 700 million Africans can engage with the index and benefit from it.” The index is intended to stimulate debate about governance in Africa and was designed as a diagnostic tool to help civil societies, donors and governments monitor national progress. The overarching goal is to improve African governance and enhance the lives of Africans.

The index draws upon a database of almost 90,000 data points available for citizens, governments, institutions and businesses to comprehensively assess governance. The scale of the challenge is further compounded by the weakness of most national statistics offices in Africa. Inevitably, this creates some compromises and challenges that invite criticism.

The inescapable moral connotations in any such relative governance ranking fuel our argumentative instincts. However, Mo Ibrahim is not someone likely to be stiffened into inaction by the quicksand of human subjectivity. Also, the issues of governance are not merely a disinterested moral polemic for the Ibrahim Foundation but an “interested” involvement. Clearly, while there are areas of improvement in how the index is determined, it is crippling to wait for the elusive finality of theoretical constructs.

Irrespective of its shortcomings, the index, which ranks countries according to 58 criteria in five main categories, provides a substantive, overarching framework with regards to governance, creating subtle pressures on the governments to ensure continued legitimacy. Good governance is not limited only to “political governance” but refers to all processes of governing, irrespective of whether undertaken by the government, markets, civil society organizations or networks.

For the Ibrahim Foundation, the account of governance is not to be attached to reified concepts and limited to formal explanations. The foundation does not take governance to be some abstract, normative concept but as a concrete basket of deliverables of public goods and services that citizens have a justifiable right to expect.

The index currently aggregates more than 80 outcome-oriented indicators. A robust, data-driven analysis to calibrate progress against these parameters allows a constructive dialogue, verifiable assessment and possible advance. Accurate information allows citizens to become fully engaged in holding their leadership to account, to ensure action, to build support for bold decisions and to consolidate political legitimacy.

Admittedly, concrete advances in both governance and leadership can only happen when the transforming impulse emerges from the process of expressing deeply held values rather than by an outside imposition of distant barometers. However, it can only augur well for Africa when rather than being the handmaidens of hollow rhetoric and nepotism the exercise of governance and expression of leadership begin to manifest in consonance with sound tenets and ideals.

Theories of governance generally suggest that patterns of rule arise as contingent products of diverse actions and political struggles, informed by the varied beliefs of situated agents. The rigorous work undertaken by the foundation in coming out with the index of governance will inform the diverse practices that people constantly build and rebuild through their concrete activity. There is cause to hope that the stunting narratives of mal-governance that Africa has created and inherited are transformed to more edifying versions as Africa rises up to respond to its dilemmas.

National identities, as Benedict Anderson argued in “Imagined Communities,” are complex constructs. The webs of belief and the current governance structures are in some measure products of contingent historical processes. However, institutions and extant modes of governance are not condemned to be predetermined. New narratives are often forged by exceptional leadership and can be reaffirmed continually through enabling governance to bring about the psychological shift vital in creating new identities and attendant social expressions.

The indispensability of this transforming impulse is even more pronounced in the African context where the states are often merely superficially unified symbols ineffectually trying to harmonize ethnocentrism and disunity.

Significant transformations are seldom singular moments of transitions but are secured bit by bit when the fundamental value judgments of society start to cohere around a more desirable set of ideals. And the beginnings of the overarching coherence lie in winning the conversations at the street level. There is no doubt that the work of the Ibrahim Foundation is sensitizing the people around standards of governance. As Ibrahim asserts, “Governance has come out of the closet in Africa.”

One can only hope that these efforts can help realize the unfulfilled promises of the continent and help unleash forces whose ideals were extolled by none other than Nelson Mandela when he told a meeting of regional leaders in 1994 that “Africa cries out for a new birth. We must, in action, say that no obstacle is big enough to stop us from bringing about a new African renaissance.”

John Hoffmire teaches at SaÏd Business School at the University of Oxford.


Pankaj Upadhyay is a graduate of the MBA program at SaÏd Business School at the University of Oxford and is a development expert.