Teaching Comparative Government and Politics

Friday, May 17, 2013

A one-man interest group

So, who is going to reform political culture in African countries?

How a billionaire is cutting Africa’s ‘big men’ down to size
Mo Ibrahim is working the room. Tossing off his jacket, rolling up his sleeves and prowling the convention room’s stage with microphone in hand, the Sudanese billionaire banters with Macky Sall, the President of Senegal. Suddenly he urges the audience to interrogate Mr. Sall, promising that nobody will be arrested or shot for impudent questions…

Mo Ibrahim
Perhaps only this remarkable philanthropist can get away with such irreverence toward an African ruler, yet he wants such candid discussion to become the norm. The traditional “big men” of African politics should be neither feared nor worshipped, he says; they should be accountable to their fellow citizens in free and open debate.

It’s not just a distant dream. With his vast wealth and inexhaustible energy, Mr. Ibrahim is shaping a new generation of African politicians…

After cajoling his audience into firing questions at the President, Mr. Ibrahim takes a few minutes over an espresso to reflect on his campaign against Africa’s old guard of corrupt and dictatorial leaders. “It’s a new world,” he says, speaking as rapidly and passionately as he did onstage. “We have some wonderful leaders now. We still have dinosaurs – but you know what happened to dinosaurs.”

It has been less than seven years since he used the billions he earned as a pioneering entrepreneur in mobile phones to create the London-based Mo Ibrahim Foundation. Its purpose is to foster good governance and to administer a $5-million prize “for achievement in African leadership” – the world’s most lucrative annual award.

As a result, he says, it is no longer “taboo” to talk about leadership. “Because of the prize, there’s a lot of noise around this. Once people start to talk, … that’s what will change the game. We have to get out of the assumption that leaders are some kind of pharaohs. They are just human beings like us.”

As well as the annual search for a model politician – someone of great achievement who has left office democratically – Mr. Ibrahim is promoting reform with an independent index to measure the successes and failures of African governments…

The prize is an incentive, promoting clean, honest leadership, and Mr. Ibrahim helps to defuse politicians’ authoritarian streak by using a deft mixture of praise and criticism to nudge them toward a genuine conversation with their citizens…

Today, at the age of 67, he uses his carefully crafted irreverence to break down the barriers between the rulers and the ruled. Onstage, he addresses Senegal’s top officials as “brothers and sisters,” and explains to the audience: “I prefer this over ‘Your Highnesses.’ All of you are important. We’re all in the same trench, fighting for good governance and human rights.”…

He has no patience for politicians who bully the media. “The media are a mirror,” he says. “If you look in the mirror and you see something ugly, maybe you’re ugly.” The audience laughs and cheers.

Nor does he have any patience for Africa’s reverential attitude toward its former liberation movements, such as South Africa’s ruling African National Congress. He notes that the ANC has introduced a secrecy law to tighten controls on state information – the kind of law it would have fought in the apartheid era…


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