Mo Ibrahim: “A good African boy who did not forget his people”

Posted By Frances Nicholls

The Sudanese-born British entrepreneur, Dr Mo Ibrahim, founder of the African mobile phone operator Celtel, philanthropist and self-made billionaire was asked in a CNN interview what legacy he would like to leave. He replied smiling that he would like to be remembered as “A good African boy who did not forget his people”

In a global context, the only African “boys” who grab the headlines in western media are generally not the “good” ones. “Good” implies an ethical approach to leadership. So can “good” boys or girls succeed in leading Africa? The example of Mo Ibrahim shows they can.

Born in Sudan 1946, Mo Ibrahim, an electrical engineer by profession, worked in the UK for BT before starting Celtel in 1998. Following the sale of Celtel to MTC of Kuwait he started the Mo Ibrahim Foundation, committed to promoting and encouraging ethical leadership and transparency in a region characterized by corruption and poor leadership. The Ibrahim Index which rates African countries on governance and the Ibrahim Prize (worth more than the Nobel peace prize), are the organisation’s most publicly known initiatives. They have received criticism and praise they have received, as well generating discussion on leadership issues in the region.

Another Change Master?

Many a political leader can be said to have abused the word “change”. Only time can tell whether a vision becomes reality or not. Whether running Celtel, or leading his foundation, Ibrahim is a change agent and his leadership is characterized by encouraging others to believe in his vision. Not only can he be described as taking an ethical approach to leadership, he is transformational. He involves his team by allowing his vision to become their vision. He tackles both the West’s tendancy for negative and patronizing approachss to Africa as well as Africa’s own dilemmas of ethical leadership. Indeed for the last 2 years, no leader has won the Ibrahim Award because, as he states himself, there has been no leader in Africa who has deserved it.

Walking the Talk

Even before the idea of the foundation had come into being, back in Celtel days, Ibrahim was leading by example. Any transformational, and indeed ethical leader needs to be able to sell themselves first before selling their ideas to others. Even the journalist Michela Wrong, well known for her success in uncovering yet another African saviour turned despot, was uncharacteristically positive in her write-up. Importantly, Ibrahim’s own story is an inspiration to others showing that big business can be done in the region ethically. His ethics in leadership goes further than “tokenism”, but comes from an internal belief in a cleaner way of doing business and importantly he actually puts this belief into practice.

Through the systems he developed at Celtel, Ibrahim made it very clear to employees and the government that bribing was not their way. Ethical in his approach, he also achieves this in a way that echoes the concept of transformational leadership through inspiring the moral beliefs and behaviour of his employees.

The foundation

Ibrahim was able to put his personal charisma and well-earned cash to good use to further promote and encourage clean governance in Africa. His ‘team’ or his agents for transformation are no longer just confined to a company or organisation, he is influencing the public and business community at large in Africa and also the international community. Indeed the foundation, run by his daughter Hadeel, boasts of members such Mary Robinson, ex-President of Ireland and former UN High Commissioner. Robinson says it was Ibrahim’s vision that inspired her to become part of the foundation.

When talking about people’s response to the prize, his daughter Hadeel notes,

“People responded partly to the notion of the prize, but also to my father as someone who will get things done…. He is consumed by the desire for excellence in all he does.”

By leading by example, and through articulating his vision clearly, he not only espouses transformational leadership qualities, but he has opened many minds to how ethics and success in Africa can help achieve change.

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