"Some African leaders grabbed the COVID pandemic as a way to trespass on people’s democratic rights ….. so from this standpoint it has not been a good year for governance."

An interview with Mo Ibrahim

Dr Ibrahim is the Founder and Chair of the Mo Ibrahim Foundation which he established in 2006 to support good governance and exceptional leadership on the African continent.

Sudanese-born, Dr Ibrahim has a distinguished business career. In 1989 he founded Mobile Systems International (MSI), a world leading cellular consulting and software provider and in 1998, Celtel International, one of Africa’s leading mobile telephone companies which pioneered mobile services in Africa and was sold to Zain in 2005.

Dr Ibrahim is also Founding Chairman of Satya Capital Limited, a private equity fund focused on Africa and Chairman of TPG-Satya, a Joint African Investment Alliance

Interview led by Camilla Toulmin and Folashadé Soulé

We’d be keen to hear how you see things one year on from the start of the COVID pandemic, the strengths shown by African countries in the face of this crisis and the difficulties ahead in re-booting a more sustainable, fairer pattern of growth. What do you think we’ve learned from the pandemic response in different parts of Africa – for political accountability and governance? Has African governance as a whole gone backwards or forwards as a result?

Mo Ibrahim. That’s not an easy question. There are a lot of African countries, a lot of variation between them in how they responded, and its dangerous to generalise. Having said that, I think the African response has been quite good. We had a bit of warning as it reached us a little bit later than other continents, but many African leaders did not waste time. They started checks at airports in Africa well before Europe, whether Heathrow, Amsterdam or Brussels – there were no checks there. People were being checked at Juba, even though at that stage there was not a single case in Juba. So there was determined, fast action by people, they did not sit on their hands. In general many African leaders acted quickly. People in Africa are more attuned to pandemics than other nations, because we’ve just had too many of them, so we have some inbuilt readiness and resilience. African institutions like the Africa-CDC have acted very well. The African Union led by President Ramaphosa of South Africa has shown strong leadership and early on convened people from various constituencies, not only governments, but also private sector, civil society, and community leaders. Efforts were made to organise joint procurement for medical equipment and materials. There are always a few odd leaders of course, who deny the existence of COVID, or pretend it is not happening, but in general there was a reasonable response from many African leaders and institutions. United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA) and Vera Songwe were very proactive and engaged from very early on, showing how this health and economic crisis raises many questions around issues of debt, interest payments and Special Drawing Rights (SDRs). We started these conversations as far back as last March in fact. This good response from Africa puts it above the bar. And if you compare them with actions by leaders in developed countries, they score a lot better than many western leaders. In Asia, leaders also acted quickly and strongly. Probably the stress on personal freedom and liberalism clouded the judgement of some European leaders, making them reluctant to lock people up, or subject them to too much testing or controls. Its probably a legacy of liberalism and democracy which led to a slow, and misguided response in the west.

So it was reasonable performance, for certain aspects of governance, with quick action when faced with the pandemic. But on the other hand, the prevailing atmosphere also led to too much executive power being grabbed in fighting COVID which then impacted on African democracy. It did allow some autocratic leaders to overplay their hand. We have had the worst year for elections in 2020, probably for many past years. There have been too many presidential term extensions, flawed elections, and people standing for election for the umpteenth time, having been in power for more than 30 years. Leaders have been changing the age limits to stay in power, harassing their opponents, and using COVID to ban rallies of their opponents when they themselves had the freedom to address public meetings. Some people grabbed the pandemic as a way to trespass on people’s democratic rights, especially during recent elections. We had so many examples of this, so from this standpoint it has not been a good year for governance.

Economic integration on the continent has been close to your heart for a long time, as shown by one of the first Mo Ibrahim Foundation Forum events held in Mauritius in 2010. Are there some really positive lessons from this crisis, in terms of pushing countries for more intensive industrialisation and self-sufficiency at a continental level?

Absolutely. With the disruption in transport and logistics worldwide, many supply chain weaknesses were exposed. There were issues with food security, procurement of medical devices, PPEs and various things. This disruption caused difficulties not only in Africa. Remember what we saw in the UK, with the scramble to procure PPE for the National Health Service, the over-inflated prices, commissions and big fees that were paid for materials which were then discarded as substandard. There were several consignments from Turkey, the US and elsewhere for medical gloves and kits which not fit. Procurement rules had been waived, no competitive bidding, and newly-formed companies were given contracts despite having absolutely no experience. So, everywhere there has been lots of funny stuff! But we’re not here to talk about the UK.

There have been real difficulties when people find they don’t have essential local supplies available. We’ve seen that global supply chains are very fragile and subject to nationalistic demands, which can put everything in danger. The argument for self-reliance in Africa and building resilient trade with your neighbours has been made very forcibly by the events we have seen. It is key that Africa has just signed up the African Continental Free Trade Agreement (AfCFTA). What we hope for now is to see its implementation – let’s see it put into action. African leaders are famous at signing up to things. Now we need to see what they’ll actually do to put it into effect. Things can get stuck in parliaments where they haggle over the small print. But we will really rely on this FTA in times of crisis, when we can no longer get things from China or EU. It’s a really useful lesson to focus people’s minds. Lack of supplies meant our doctors, nurses and health workers were not protected during the crisis, which was very sad, tragic actually. Now we’re having a battle over vaccines, but that is another issue.

If everyone has signed up to AfCFTA, what would give you confidence, in practice, that governments are moving beyond signature to implementation? What would you like to see next happening on the ground, in terms of things like border barriers?

We need pressure put on governments by civil society and by business. They must play their role in pushing governments to open up access to each other’s markets. The value is huge from this. Just watch the way in which the UK and EU are haggling around Brexit and the terms of market access. It’s very important. Free trade between our countries will enhance our GDPs and be good for everybody. It will make Africa more attractive for business. Let’s say I want to invest in a factory in Benin, but it’s a small country. If I want a successful business, my factory in Benin needs to supply Mali, Senegal and Burkina Faso and other neighbouring countries because then I have scale. With scale, I can keep prices low, and I can compete. Scale is very important. What is the strength of China? Its scale - nothing more than that. They can leverage 1.4b people. We also must build that scale in Africa. All businesspeople understand this, so they must stand up, push and fight for this, as must civil society. Its going to bring more jobs and better prices, as well as safety in time of stress and crisis, so we get better food and supply security. Everyone knows it needs to happen - so let’s please just get it done.

Looking at border barriers, if you grow tomatoes in this country, and you want to sell in the neighbouring country, it is a big problem as things get stuck at the border and they go completely rotten. Some stuff has to move quickly, especially without a lot of refrigerated trucks and sophisticated logistics. To meet market gaps efficiently, we must demolish these borders and allow goods, people and capital to flow across these borders. This would really bring prosperity.

“Africa’s place in the world” was the topic of the Mo Ibrahim Foundation Governance weekend initially scheduled for Addis Ababa last year. This has been period of rapid change and evolution, and many global actors and powers want to gain more access to the continent - China, Russia, the US, EU and others. How can African actors – governments, business, civil society - use this interest to their advantage, and create more room for manoeuvre from a political and economic point of view?

Very good question! There is more attention now paid to Africa by others. We’re a youth market which is growing fast, and there’s a growing middle class, so a big growth in consumption – look at your Apple head-set, for example. Not only young people, in fact everyone wants this electronic stuff now. Business is waking up to this good news about the African market. For us, the more suitors we have, the better the deals we should be able to negotiate. It is not only China, EU and US, but also Turkey, the Gulf states, Russia and more. It is to our advantage to have as many people interested as possible. But there is also a danger, since some of these actors can bring conflicts to Africa. While many have primarily economic interests, they also have geo-political and strategic interests on the African continent. Look at how many countries are engaged in Libya, for example. Every Tom, Dick and Harry is in Libya! Why? What are they doing there? Or take the Horn of Africa, where there are so many new army bases. Even China has a base there now. So, this is a potential danger from the rising interest of all these countries getting involved in Africa. They’re exporting their conflicts to us. We should be saying to them- look guys, fight your problem over there, do not fight proxy wars on our continent, don’t bring it over here! Its us who will suffer.

None of these people are coming because they’re charitable. They come because they see a profit-margin there, but that’s just business for you. We definitely need to have the ability to negotiate contracts better and have greater transparency. Unfortunately, many of these business contracts lack transparency. We don’t know exactly what the terms of many contracts say. We also need to be wary of excessive debts. People come to you saying, “we can build a beautiful bridge here or a wonderful road there.” If you answer, “But I don’t have the money.” They will say “Don’t worry, we’ll lend it to you.” But we should be much more careful about getting into debt, look at the contract, and the price of these projects. Because you end up being in a lot of inextricable debt, if you’re not careful. $44 billion we had to pay out last year in interest payments. This is at a time when all our economies are closed down, they’ve tanked, and yet we’re having to pay this amount in interest every year – we’re not even paying back the capital. There is also the question of where these loans went. What were they used for? Timeo Danaos…Let us beware of strangers coming bearing gifts. We need to be sensible and avoid these white elephant projects, otherwise we leave our young people with a huge debt. And then we go and ask people to cancel our debts which is not right.

Things seem to be going a bit better with the EU who want to re-set relations. We’ve just formed the Africa Europe Foundation which brings together civil society, business, institutions, youth from both continents, the African Union and European Commission to try and work out practical things they can do together, out of shared interest. There’s a growing realisation that if Africa sneezes, Europe will catch a cold. The migration crisis has made that absolutely clear. It was a near and present danger to European democracy. It seems strange to me, that refugees from Africa and the Middle East almost brought down governments in Europe. People appreciate that if there is a problem here in Africa, you need to go and help address it. You can’t do this by putting a fleet in the Mediterranean. But you can support development and jobs for young people. If you have conflicts in Africa, you’ll get refugees, so its much better to work for peace and security in Africa. That should be the basis for development. Without security what can you do? Is any development going on in Darfur? Of course not. Villages have been burnt, people migrated, schools have been burnt. How can you have development? What about the Sahara and the Sahel – this is a huge ungoverned space, with all sorts of jihadist and different groups contesting governments and joining grievances. It’s a catastrophe! They threaten the basis of states in the region. This undermines governments and stability which will unleash a tide of refugees on Europe, so our fates are very closely entwined. I am focused on this, there are just a few miles between us. Our futures are very close.

China is welcome. China is a huge power. They had a huge fight about corruption at home with 90 or 100,000 people put in jail. It was massive! We want to see some of that zeal implemented in terms of China’s deals with Africa. It should be indivisible, so if you fight corruption at home you should apply the same rules in Africa. The US has been absent from Africa for many years and the recent period of President Trump even made things much worse. He described us as “shitholes”. We remember that! Even their strategy for Africa was just a strategy to combat China in Africa. Sorry guys! Some respect please. We’re not just a battleground for the US and China. Let’s have a US strategy about us and our interests. We hope this new administration will have a more globalist view, which looks more for partnerships. Its still early days, we’ve heard some good noises, but we need to see action of the ground. We will await judgement. For the Gulf states, they had a big fight amongst the cousins, which spilled out into the Horn of Africa. Happily now they have kissed and made up. Let African people lead their own life - don’t come and fight your problems here.

You insist on the necessity of transparency. Many of these contracts, not only with China but also with other powers, they lack transparency which opens the door for more corruption. Its right for African governments to solve this issue, but many of them have their own internal issues. They don’t seem to be able to ask for more transparency, especially in their relations with countries like China. Shouldn’t the pressure and necessity for transparency come from other actors, such as African civil society?

Yes, we all must do this. But we can’t give a free pass to governments. It is their job, after all. They are the ones who sign the contracts. We need to ask them “why are you not being transparent? Are you getting some money under the table? Is this the reason? Is money in a brown envelope the reason why you have chosen to shroud the contract in secrecy?” Is government beholden to China for some reason, and in their debt and unable to pay? I can’t see why a government or leader in Africa would refuse to be transparent about this. You’re either corrupt or inept. In both cases, you should not be a leader. Civil society has to insist as must other actors. When some bank gets involved in this fiasco in Mozambique, pretending to buy fishing fleets, a few people ended up with huge commissions, but no one caught a single fish, and the country is now in debt – what is the role of banks in this? Banks must be responsible and show transparency. They should be punished if they do this kind of dirty deal. In the US, they would have been fined many million dollars, whereas in Africa no-one gets fined or brought to justice. If you make a mistake in the developed world, you have to pay. Look at BP and the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico for which they were responsible, they were absolutely taken to the cleaners and had to pay billions of dollars. If people do that in Nigeria, nothing happens. They pollute the Gulf of Guinea and nothing happens, People live for decades in an oil-infested landscape, its terrible pollution. It took so many years to get one ruling in Europe against an oil company for their activities in Nigeria. We need to reinforce the laws locally and globally.

One of the consequences of the pandemic has been a big fall in demand for oil and its price, with big knock-on effects for African oil exporting counties like Angola, Nigeria and Algeria. New African oil exports are also going to find that their market disappears. What is practical and fair for new African oil exporters? Should they leave it in the ground and leapfrog straight to green energy?

The problem is twofold. First is this “rent” economy. I find oil, I sit back and go to sleep, selling oil and others pay me money. What a terrible mistake! Nigeria used to have a diverse economy, it used to feed itself, and it had one of the best agricultural systems in the continent. But since oil started flowing, what has happened? They gave up on agriculture and they now import most of their food. They have just been sitting back and getting the petrol rent, fighting amongst themselves, with petrol money fuelling so much corruption. This strategy has been a disaster. But change is coming. The writing has been on the wall. Like it or not, the world is going green. It has to happen. Everyone is going off oil. In a few years, you won’t be able to buy a new car that uses petrol. The cost of renewable energy is coming down below fossil prices. Prices are plummeting. If I am an oil-producing country, should I look back at yesterday’s economy, or think about tomorrow and how to diversify? Its going to be painful. If you’ve been receiving 90% of your money from oil and now it has gone down to one third, that’s 2/3 of your budget gone. It’s going to be painful. But I think people have started to get the message about the risks not only of relying on oil, but in relying on one single economic asset. African countries have got themselves trapped – look at Guinea and iron ore, copper in Zambia, diamonds in Botswana. We have to move away from this. A diverse economy is the only way to withstand economic shocks. So it’s a very useful wakeup call.

We’ve touched on a lot of big issues, but what’s keeping you awake at night?

Yes, there are too many issues I have been arguing for, but most of all now it is vaccines and African debt. These are really important because African countries don’t have the fiscal space to support our economies. Many businesses are going bankrupt. Look at the collapse of tourism with hotels, and tour companies – no more customers, nobody, nothing. In rich countries, governments are throwing cash at everyone, businesses and individuals. They say “Stay at home I give you a very soft loan.” But that cannot happen in Africa. There is a substantial amount of debt, and there’s been a lot of talk but no action. Some speak of a $100b injection and the prospect of SDRs. There is $500b in SDRs which could potentially be offered to African states. But some countries say “no, no, - we can’t do this – Africa will just use it to pay China off.” China also needs to come into the conversation, because much of the debt is owed to them. They need to show some empathy. If they are to be a true champion of the developing world, this is the moment to show it. Solidarity is more than nice words and speeches. What are we going to do about debt? Its not fair to ask the western countries to cancel the debt and only the Chinese reap the benefit, leaving African countries with no extra money.

On the vaccine side, its worrying to see this vaccine nationalism, and countries fighting over supplies. Most rich countries ordered and booked far more vaccines than they actually need. Canada, for example, has five shots for every citizen. Why do you need as many as five shots? At the same time, we need to see people vaccinated in Africa. It’s a basic question of equality and humanity. You cannot save guys here and leave those over there to die. This is a truly global disease. It’s a bit like climate change. You have to do it globally. You can try and go for net zero carbon here, but you need everyone else to go for net zero if we are to have a decent global climate. This pandemic is global too. This virus doesn’t know borders, and the more we let this virus mutate elsewhere, the more difficulty we face. We’re already seeing that maybe the vaccinations we have now will not be as effective on the new mutations. And that’s after only a few months of vaccination. What is going to happen in another few months? In 6 months, we are likely to find more and more mutations have appeared, so we can say yes, the UK has done a great job and vaccinated everyone by the end of May. But you may then find you have to do it all over again. Its going to be a terrible waste of billions of dollars. Its very short-sighted. If we want to defeat the virus, we have to defeat it globally. This comes out of self-interest, not out of charity. Rich countries need to be smart and sensible.

About the COVID-19 and Africa series: a series of conversations conducted by Dr. Folashadé Soulé and Dr. Camilla Toulmin with African/Africa-based economists and experts about their perspectives on economic transformation and how the COVID situation re-shapes the options and pathways for Africa’s development - in support of INET’s Commission on Global Economic Transformation (CGET)

Share your perspective