John Hoffmire: Celebrating leadership and transforming governance in Africa

Published: Tuesday, Jan. 21 2014 12:00 a.m. MST

Finding opportunities and sorting them out from grand possibilities is what Mo Ibrahim has done throughout his lifetime.

Matt Dunham, Associated Press

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Editor's note: Pankaj Upadhyay wrote the vast majority of this article.

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.

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.

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