MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. Unless you follow the news in Africa closely, you might not know the name Mo Ibrahim. But Mo Ibrahim might be one of the most important transformational figures in the history of the continent. And I know that that sounds like an exaggeration. But consider - he is the man behind Cel-tel International, now one of Africa's leading mobile phone operators, a business he founded with the explicit goal of creating a successful business without paying bribes.

And then, three years ago, the Sudanese-born businessman sold Cel-tel and founded the Mo Ibrahim Foundation to promote good governance in Africa by recognizing achievement in African leadership. It is the largest annually awarded prize in the world. Mo Ibrahim studied in Egypt and later moved to Britain where he now resides. Last week, he was on a U.S. tour and was kind enough to stop by our studios in Washington. Although he is now a successful businessman, I asked him what his dreams were when he was growing up.

Mr. MO IBRAHIM (Founder, Mo Ibrahim Foundation): I really loved science. I was good at school, and my role model was people like Einstein and Madame Curie, and I really hoped to be a physicist of that caliber. But here I am, unfortunately. Broken dreams.

MARTIN: Well, some might disagree. Was it hard for you, like many of your generation had to leave your country of origin to go and pursue your higher education abroad. Was that hard?

Mr. IBRAHIM: Not really, actually. I was one of the lucky few to have the opportunity to pursue my higher education to get my PhD, etcetera, but that's Africa for you. I mean, it's chance. It is luck, where people can escape the trap of poverty and really have the chance to develop their talents and their abilities. I can't stop how many kids, who probably are more talented than me, who never had my opportunity.

MARTIN: Why did you have that opportunity? What did your parents do?

Mr. IBRAHIM: My parents were leading a modest life. My father was a collector in a company. So there was nothing dramatic, really. We did not starve, but we were not rich, either. But I happened to go to some good schools, and I happened to do well, and I managed to develop my academic career.

MARTIN: You're clever.

(soundbite of laughter)

Mr. IBRAHIM: This is embarrassing.

MARTIN: Inquiring minds want to know.

Mr. IBRAHIM: Well, I always can talk about my school.

MARTIN: OK. You, and this is also probably embarrassing, but you made your first fortune as an engineer, specifically as a consultant who designed mobile networks. You did very well at that, and a lot of people would have stopped there. I mean, having made one fortune and lived the good life, why did you decide to go on?

Mr. IBRAHIM: That's a very good question. And many people at the time thought that I was crazy to start Cel-tel at that point of time. But having been involved in the wireless communication revolution, if I call it revolution in Europe, we designed probably half the cellular networks in Europe. And I also had four hundred engineers working here who designed a lot of your systems here, as well. We made good money. We sold the company for 900 million dollars or something like that.

But during my work, I noticed none of the operators were willing to invest in Africa and to build more viable communications in Africa. And people were worried about investing in Africa. They thought as a rule of law, unpredictability, corruption, a lot of issues, which kept them from investing in Africa. I saw the need for communication in Africa because we didn't have fixed lines really to speak of, and Africa is huge. It's huge.

One country of Africa like DLC or like Sudan is bigger than the whole of Eastern Europe. That's why we decided to go and build it in Africa.

MARTIN: Well, but as you pointed out, a lot of people could see a need, but they weren't sure that they could make a profit. They weren't willing to invest because they assumed that it would be unprofitable. And I'd like to ask you - why do you think you were able to do what so many people were afraid to do? Just to point out for those who aren't aware, the market is something like 20 million subscribers in 15 countries at the time.

Mr. IBRAHIM: It's 30 million now.

MARTIN: Exactly. At the time that you sold, but now it's at 30 million. So why do you think that you were able to do that when other people weren't even willing to try?

Mr. IBRAHIM: Because I was not afraid of Africa. And Africa, I know, was some extent different from Africa as portrayed in the media. In the West, where I lived, the same media, I watch and I read, which unfortunately is focusing on news, and what's news about Africa is always bad news. Not because media is biased at all, but that what interest the people in the media. If you have a tsunami, if you have a genocide, if you have a civil war, these are interesting.

But people forget that Africa has 53 countries, and if I have problems in two or three countries, it doesn't mean that the rest is on fire, really. That's one thing. Second thing, was also the issue of corruption. A lot of our colleagues thought that corruption is endemic in Africa. I don't deny it. There is a corruption problem, but it is not the way it is portrayed. Let me give you a - I'll tell you a short story. I mean, I speak a lot in conferences and meetings in Europe, etcetera. In America, here, you had your Foreign Corruption Act, long time ago, and you did prosecute people. I commend you on that. I think that is one great thing you did here in US.

Europe was reluctant, really, to make corruption illegal. And until five years ago, in most European countries, bribes were legal. It's actually tax deductible. You put it under business expenses, and you get tax relief. Under pressure from the OCED, European countries changed the law and made corruption illegal. Now, what happened is that in the last five or six years, there have not been a single prosecution of a company or a businessman in any European country for corruption in Africa. Not a single one.

So when I go to Berlin, or I go to Norway, or I go to Paris, or London and talk here and people stand up and say, oh, what about corruption in Africa? I say, excuse me. I mean, are you guys serious? You say there's no corrupt person here in Britain in Germany, so are the Africans corrupting themselves or what? Who's the partner in corruption?

MARTIN: I understand your point that a lot of these countries that are so dismissive of the situation in Africa are enabling the situation, but that doesn't change the fact that on the other end, there is a problem with corruption. I mean, we've had the opportunity to...

Mr. IBRAHIM: Michel, Michel, this is like adultery. It needs two consenting adults. And we always think of the woman. Now, if the man was not there, would there have been adultery? Because I will charge that business is responsible for corruption. We as business people are responsible. We are the guys who go induce. We want shortcuts and reduce corruption. The evidence? We were able to build 15 large companies in 15 countries in Africa. We are the largest taxpayer in ten countries in Africa. We have not paid a single dollar in corruption.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, we are speaking with Mo Ibrahim - businessman and philanthropist. How were you able to demand that kind of accountability? Because as I would just imagine that this would require really a cultural shift.

Mr. IBRAHIM: Absolutely. You need to restore the culture in your company. And everybody in the company need to know that the board is serious about this. It is not that will have to include it in our employees' books and then, wink, wink, and forget about it. In our company, for example, with a simple slogan - said, not a single dollar. Very simple. Not a single dollar. And we say people, repeat after me - not a single dollar. It's easy to remember.

MARTIN: And did people know what you were talking about from the beginning?

Mr. IBRAHIM: Exactly. And then we take actions, which are really needed. We made the decision that any check higher than 30,000 dollars will need to be ratified by the board. So the board has to sign any check above 30,000 dollars. And we had a magnificent board, very serious people. People from the World Bank, people from Harvard University. We had the founder of Vodafone was on my board. We have a senior minister - previous minister, in the UK government. It was that kind of really big board, and we said fine. We will give the board the power to sign any check above 30,000 dollars, and the board said we're going to make ourselves available. We're happy to pass any resolutions by email, by telephone, we're a communications company. We can reach each other any time. And it's simple.

MARTIN: Well, you know, it is assumed, I think, that corruption becomes part of the culture of a company or a culture as the people, you know, believe - well, I mean, there's always different views of human behavior, but one view is that people are just evil, and greedy, and they'll do whatever they can get away with. But another view is that people do what they think they have to do to survive, and if people think that this is what they have to do to survive, that that's what they'll do.

Mr. IBRAHIM: Right, but the kind of corruption we're talking about as far as a business or the oil industry, extractive industries, is different. That is not for anybody's survival. That is to buy the villa in South France, to buy the helicopter, to buy the - I'm not talking about the policeman who takes a dollar from you because he's making 50 dollars a month, knowing that is not enough for a human being to live on, and still to pay a policeman 50 dollars a month.

And they say OK, you go collect the rest of your salary, I mean, this is hypocrisy. But anyway, that's another level of minor corruption, if I call it so, and I'm worried about the bigger corruption. I mean, I give you a simple example, Norway. Major oil producer. The country takes 85 percent of the revenue of oil from the oil company. Your typical African countries, or South American countries, takes something around 25 percent. Or in some case, I held 15 percent.

MARTIN: Why are they able to get away with that?

Mr. IBRAHIM: Because lack of transparency, my dear. And because these companies never publish their accounts, as horrified or I find it initially from the extractive industry transparency. The mining companies never publish their agreements. That's something we have to change. We need to know how much Chevron has been paying Angola, how much is really going to the Angolan government, and how much is going elsewhere. We need to do everywhere. We need to have transparency.

MARTIN: So you had this incredible experience with Cel-tel and then you sold that, did very well, and you had another idea, the Mo Ibrahim Foundation.

Mr. IBRAHIM: Right. What happened is we sold the Cel-tel company, which was a great success, and obviously we made a great deal of money.

MARTIN: I hear it was in the B's. We moved out of the M's into the B's.

Mr. IBRAHIM: Yes.

MARTIN: Is that about right?

Mr. IBRAHIM: That's true. I think we sold it for three point four billion.

MARTIN: Three point four billion.

Mr. IBRAHIM: Yeah, dollars, which is not all mine, but I was one large shareholder there, so we got lots of money. And I really don't need that money. Me, personally. I mean, I live quite comfortably, and it's fine, but there's a lot of money, which was made here. And I thought I need to give back this money now. And there's a number of questions associated with that. First, to whom shall I give this money? That was an easy question because, obviously, I have to give it back to Africa because I'm African, because that's where the money was made, and because that's the most deserving place, most needy place.

So that took one minute to settle. The difficult question was how to give back. Now, I really don't belong to the school, which really focus on charities. I respect the people doing charities, but I see charities as painkillers. Like Aspirin, they help, but they don't cure the problem. And that's why I decided I want to do something different.

MARTIN: That was Mo Ibrahim - businessman, philanthropist, and founder of the Mo Ibrahim Foundation.

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