A Nobel for Honest Politicians

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One more way the ultra-rich are not like the rest of us: they can use their megabucks not only to do good, but to secure global, intergenerational fame at the same time. We remember Alfred Nobel much more for the prestigious prizes endowed by his estate than for his invention of that deadly staple of modern armies, TNT. Many more people are aware of Rhodes Scholarships than the career of the brilliant imperialist and racist Cecil Rhodes, who founded them with the profits from his African diamond mines. And in the course of just a decade, Bill Gates has managed to transform his image from visionary but cutthroat capitalist to transcendent philanthropist, by the efforts of his $32 billion foundation to tackle disease and poverty in Africa.

Mo Ibrahim wants to be part of that fraternity. He's a successful London-based entrepreneur whose fortune rests on bringing cell phones to Africa. He sold his company in 2005 with a personal profit of $640 million. Now he's putting $100 million into a foundation that among other things will fund a new annual prize, the richest in the world: the winner gets $5 million spread over 10 years, then $200,000 per year after that for life, plus another $200,000 per year to direct to any cause he or she wants. Who's eligible? A very select group: honest African leaders.

The idea is to encourage good governance in a continent whose fantastic potential has been sapped by pervasive corruption. Ibrahim believes that "nothing, absolutely nothing, is more important to African development than good governance." By holding out this prize, he hopes the temptation for African presidents and prime ministers to salt away millions in Swiss banks will be slightly reduced. They might even feel competitive pressure to demonstrate clean hands. In retirement, they will also have the financial independence to keep speaking out and setting a good example — a likely attraction for African leaders who haven't been able to make money by lecturing and writing memoirs in the manner of American ex-presidents. "Sometimes," says Ibrahim, "they find themselves without enough money to rent an apartment in the capital city that until a few weeks ago they were ruling from the palace on the top of the hill."

Born in Cairo in 1946, the son of a cotton industry official and a Nubian mother (the ethnic group found in southern Egypt and northern Sudan), Ibrahim got an engineering degree and started working for a telecommunications company in Sudan. He got his Ph.D. in the then-obscure field of mobile telecommunications, and eventually started a company called Celtel to develop mobile phone services in Africa. By 2005 it was operating all over the continent and was sold to a Kuwaiti company for $6 billion — the source of Ibrahim's wealth. He contends that Celtel never paid a bribe, and argues its success proves that real money can be made honestly in Africa — much of which, despite its bad press, is peaceful and ripe for development.

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