November 4, 2015

“History provides context, but we cannot become prisoners of our own history,” said Dr. Mo Ibrahim. “The challenge is where to go from here.”

Ibrahim—who is chairman of the Mo Ibrahim Foundation and founding chairman of Satya Capital Limited, a private equity fund focused on Africa—was speaking about “The Challenges of Governance in Africa” on October 27 at Columbia’s Italian Academy.

Ibrahim began his talk by defining good governance.

“Governance is a basket of public goods that governments must deliver,” he said, including in that basket the rule of law, sustainable economic policy, human development, and human rights.

Whether the public or private sector ultimately delivers these goods, Ibrahim said, it is the government’s responsibility to ensure they are in fact provided.

All citizens must be able to “practice their humanity unimpeded,” he said.

Ibrahim suggested that Africa’s difficult history laid the groundwork for its governance issues today. He said the periods of slavery, colonialism, and later the Cold War—“no less damaging to Africa than the previous two eras,” but much less discussed—led to the support of criminal leaders, which has been extremely harmful to African development.

To illustrate his point, Ibrahim told the story of Jean-Bédel Bokassa, a former head of state of the Central African Republic who later proclaimed himself to be emperor of the Central African Empire. To celebrate his own “coronation,” Bokassa held a ceremony that cost $20 million, or one-third of the nation’s annual budget.

Doing so was “criminal and stupid,” Ibrahim said.

He implicated colonialism in two more factors that complicate governance in Africa to this day—geography and institutions. The continent’s “ridiculous” national borders appear to have been “drawn by drunk colonels,” Ibrahim said, but must be honored for fear of increased conflict.

And because many of the institutions—including electoral processes, courts, and tax regimes—were inherited from England, France, and other colonial powers, they don’t reflect the way many African countries function in reality.

“Institution-building is a process that takes time,” Ibrahim said. “You don’t just wake up in the morning and say, ‘We’re going to have democracy.’”

Africa has a large landmass, plentiful natural resources, and is not overpopulated, observed Ibrahim. It remains poor, he said, solely “because of bad governance… we can improve our situation by better management.”

Ibrahim seeks to encourage good governance in Africa and to that end created the Ibrahim Prize for Achievement in African Leadership, which recognized exceptional heads of state who have served their constitutionally mandated term and transitioned out of office peacefully.

This is important, he said, because—in contrast to the United States and Europe—when African leaders leave office, they typically don’t have a financial cushion to fall back on. He then cited a story about the former president of Cape Verde, who did not have a place to live in his own city after he was voted out of office.

“This is a fact about the good guys in Africa,” Ibrahim said. “You have nothing. [After leaving office] you have to call a taxi and move into your mother’s apartment.”

Another way Ibrahim is trying to encourage better governance is by reaching African youth. His foundation conducts a youth program, which reaches out at sporting and musical events to talk about why the future of Africa lies in how it will be managed.

“Governance doesn’t need to be boring, governance can be fun,” he said.

Ibrahim has also created the Ibrahim Index, a collection of indicators that is used to actively track the status of African countries’ governance. “This is Africa doing its own business,” he said. It is used to “frame the debate around Africa” in a way that has never been done before.

— Lindsay Fuller MPA ’16