Mo Ibrahim: “Around the world, authoritarianism is on the rise.”
GP Podcast on governance trends in Africa and ways forward for German Africa policy
Dr Mo Ibrahim is a British-Sudanese telecommunications entrepreneur and philanthropist. In 2006 he established the Mo Ibrahim Foundation to foster good governance and leadership on the African continent.
Dr Olumide Abimbola is a development economist from Nigeria and has worked for Deutsceh Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) and the African Development Bank. He is the founder and director of the Africa Policy Research Institute in Berlin.
Recording of the Podcast
In the second episode of our new season of The Africa Roundtable – The Podcast, we talk about the ongoing situation in Sudan, governance trends in Africa and around the world, climate justice, and the three biggest challenges facing Africa which the international community needs to address in its development cooperation.
Read the full transcript of the podcast here:
GPI: Germany has voted, and a new government will be formed shortly. New parties, new programmes, new minds. So, what does this mean for German and European Africa policy? This is what we want to look at today, and we will do that with Mo Ibrahim: British-Sudanese telecommunications entrepreneur, founder of the Mo Ibrahim Foundation and advocate for good governance. Welcome to The Africa Roundtable – The Podcast.
Mo, due to the current situation in Sudan I would first like to ask you a question about the recent developments there. It was not until 2019 that the authoritarian government was peacefully overthrown after a 20-year rule. And now, a coup. Mo, what can we expect there right now?
Mo Ibrahim: It is a very critical situation. The general turned on the civilian part of the government. After the revolution, which ended technically by a coup where the generals of al-Bashir turned on him and took power, there were negotiations with civilians and a form of partnership was agreed as a transition period towards a completely civilian democratic government. The military was not comfortable throughout this for various reasons. 70 or 80 per cent of the Sudanese economy is in the hands of military institutions. Actually, I will call it a military corporation. They control mining, financial services, imports, and exports. Many of these assets are private fiefdoms of the generals. That is the way al-Bashir used to run the country. By loyalties, by looting the country assets and passing them on to those guys. According to the constitution agreement, General al-Burhan should now pass the leadership of the Sovereignty Council, effectively that of head of state, to the civilian side. And that would have been tough for him. That, to some extent, defines the timing of the coup on the 25th of October. The coup has been rejected by the streets, with hundreds of thousands of people demonstrating against him, as well as international pressure: Everybody is condemning the coup. Everybody except Egypt, unfortunately. Even Saudi-Arabia and the Emirates, which are natural allies to the military, condemned the coup in a statement two days ago together with the United States’ and the UK’s governments. This coup will not pass. The question is: How long is it going to survive? There are negotiations going on now to try and restore the civilian rule. Al-Burhan will need some face-saving formula. The situation is very fluid.
GPI: After the coup, The Economist wrote “The army’s takeover in Sudan highlights a worrying trend.” The work of your foundation focuses on good governance and leadership in Africa. A coup in Sudan, and Ethiopian Nobel Peace Prize laureate turned warlord: Is that a rising trend for political development in Africa?
Mo Ibrahim: Unfortunately, we see a retreat of democratic norms in Africa. Most African countries embraced liberal democracy and regular elections. Unfortunately, in the last few years, we’ve seen some retreat from that. We’ve seen problems in Mali and Guinea, and you see issues in Chad and now going on in Ethiopia and Sudan. We have a problem in Africa with armies. A serious problem. Armies consume a huge amount of the little budgets we have, and we buy them all the toys: Tanks, armored vehicles, Kalashnikov guns and wonderful, beautiful uniforms. Their job is to be at the borders to protect the country. Unfortunately, they come back to the capital and take power and rule us. They turn their guns against us. That’s just unacceptable. And why are we spending all this money? Why would we have an army to start with? I am not convinced about what wars our armies have joined. When we have a terrorism threat, we run to France asking for help. Some countries ask for guerilla groups and mercenaries. We have an issue here. Some African armies are rogue and think that since they have guns, they need to run the place. But the rise of authoritarian regimes is becoming a global issue, really. Look around you and see how many authoritarian regimes in one form or another are emerging around us. Some of those authoritarian guys are wearing nice Armani suits instead of uniforms but is the same situation. There is a whiff of authoritarianism around us. Even in established democracies, in the middle of Europe, there are some rising authoritarian regimes. The U.S. has danced with it for some time and is not finished yet.
GPI: Thanks, Mo, for your assessment on this topic so. Let us now take a look at a few points concerning European-African relations. We do not yet know who will govern Germany for the next four years, but it will likely be a social democratic-green-liberal government. Nevertheless, expectations from the cultural sector, from business, society, and abroad are high. In general, what are your expectations of the new German government?
Mo Ibrahim: I really wish our German friends well, and I hope the new government will help push Germany forward to engage better with the world. You are lucky to be very stable. From a distance, we don’t see much difference between the outgoing or the incoming governments. We don’t see the details from a distance. You are lucky to live in a stable, predictable kind of regime. The most important thing is that the far right is losing its hold in the country, and that is what really delights us.
GPI: During The Africa Roundtable in June of this year you addressed the governments of Europe with clear demands for fair access to loans for African countries. What does the current status look like? How successful have you been with this request so far?
Mo Ibrahim: It has not been very successful so far. Unfortunately, we hear a lot of good words. This is becoming a new norm: New and old world leaders always talk nicely at meetings. We have a wonderful photo opportunity at the G7 and the G20 and now in Glasgow. Beautiful statements and well-meaning people. But we don’t see much action or clear commitments. It is unfortunate.
GPI: But the question is: How can the affected African states put pressure on these demands?
Mo Ibrahim: To be honest, maybe Africa should stop playing ball because Africa has, for example, been a victim of climate change, yet there are still people demanding Africa to do this and to do that. There was no support for mitigation. Let me give an example for Germany: You shut down your nuclear power stations and then, in transition, you fire up three major coal power plants. Did anybody say anything? No. In Africa, one country tries to build a coal-fired power station and everybody jumps up and down. The difference is that this African country would need funding from the World Bank or the African Development Bank. And people become very righteous and stop these projects. Germany, fortunately, doesn’t need funding or financial support from any institution and just goes ahead and does it. Rich countries are able to shape their policies to suit whatever they’re trying to do. Africa is told “You cannot do that” at a time when 500 million Africans don’t have access to electricity. Do you know what it means to not have access to electricity, to power? You have no life. You cannot work, you could not have this conversation with me. Power is so essential, and 500 million people don’t have it and we need to deal with that issue. That is, it needs to be discussed honestly and openly why rich countries continue to do what they do. I read that people are actually releasing more carbon now than any time before. But we turn to Africa and say “No, you cannot do that” when the need is so urgent. If you compare the carbon footprint of an African to that of an American, the latter is 150 times that of the former. Where is climate justice? Why are people are resisting to have a global carbon price to level the playing field? There are issues here people need to listen to. Unfortunately, we have a fractured global order and politicians who are more concerned about the next election than the long-term interests of their own people and humanity in general. Everybody is just concerned about next year’s election. People want cheap oil and gas for their cars. It is a sad indictment of us as human beings in general. I’m really dismayed and unhappy about what’s going on.
GPI: I hear your concern, Mo. Let’s change topics: Angela Merkel was considered to be very friendly towards Africa, although one could certainly question how much this actually achieved in African politics. How do you think Germany will position itself geopolitically?
Mo Ibrahim: That is a very serious question. We have some tectonic shifts in international relations and an old world order collapsing around us. The rise of China is a problem for the United States who don’t know how to handle it. Sometimes you need to confront it and in some areas you need to cooperate with them. In the United States itself remain some question marks about what happened over the last few years in America and what the future of American democracy is. And that also casts shadow on future U.S.-European relations, including Germany. Is that alliance valid in the long term? How much commitment do we have there? Then we have the rise of spoilers. We have Russia which is trying to re-establish some authority for a fading empire and lost glory. We have Turkey doing what Turkey is doing around the place. It is becoming very complicated. Europe looks around: Who are my friends, who are my competitors? This is a changing picture. Of course, Africa now seems to be one of the best bets for relations going forward. There are historical assets, there is that relationship. Firstly, of course, in geography. Geography is very important. The continent is very close to you. There’s a lot of shared history, some painful, some wonderful. We know each other quite well, I think. There are some assets there, but there’s also a lot of competition. Look at the number of “Africa-somebody” summits coming up: There’s the Africa-Europe Summit coming up, Africa-China, Africa-Japan, Africa-U.S., Africa-Turkey, Africa-India, Africa-Russia. It is very confusing, very competitive and you have various people vying a closer relationship. Russia is now looking for bases the Red Sea. In Germany, that is an issue, too. Do you need to build your armed forces or not? Can you rely on the U.S. to come to your defense in the case of catastrophe? Of course, there is an inherent rejection of building up military might in Russia and Germany again, given the unfortunate history. The world is changing so much, and people are grappling with which direction. Where are we going? I’m speaking from London now and it is sad to see that a European country is engaged in a fraught relationship with great neighbour.
GPI: For some observers in Africa, German-African relations seem somewhat opaque, which is also due to Germany’s rule. This is what Dr Olumide Abimbola, Executive Director of the Africa Policy Research Institute (APRI) in Berlin, says. My colleague Christine Mhundwa asked him about his observations on what Germany wants from Africa. The answer seems a bit surprising. Let’s listen to it.
Olumide Abimbola: The new government should first figure out what it wants from Africa. In other words, what are its foreign policy interests with regards to Africa? My feeling is that that had not been clarified over a long period of time. Africa is mostly being discussed under Germany’s development policy, not under Germany’s foreign policy. That is something that has to be clarified. First of all, the government needs to figure out what it wants from Africa. We know what other countries want from Africa, we understand what China wants from Africa, we even understand what the U.S. wants from Africa, but we’re not sure what Germany wants from Africa. It doesn’t have to be communicated outwards, but it needs to be clarified internally. It should then inform how it chooses to define its policy with Africa. It has to clarify that first as Germany, but then as a country within the EU and also as a country that has France as the second strong voice within the EU. That is part one. After that, Germany needs to develop a policy that listens to what Africans want.
GPI: Germany has not yet found its relationship with Africa says Olumide Abimbola. Mo, what do you think? What would you say are the three most important topics of future relations between Germany and African states?
Mo Ibrahim: Firstly, we have COVID. We are not out of the woods yet. And I really salute the recent initiative from a German pharmaceutical company, BioNTech, that is going to build manufacturing facilities in Senegal and Rwanda. That is wonderful. COVID is a problem, and we need to build our own manufacturing capacity. We buy 90 percent of our medicine and vaccines. With vaccine nationalism Africa was denied fair access to the vaccine. We need to sort this out as soon as possible. It is in the interest of rich countries to make sure the disease is contained, otherwise Africa and Asia become breeding grounds for new variants. Secondly, climate change is important. I talked about that enough. That’s something we need to rationalise in light of African need for energy. Energy is now the number one priority for Africa. We need energy and we need to use it in a sustainable way. Africa is a great place for solar energy, and we should focus on that. At the same time, we need to accept that there must be a transition period to enable us to really move forward. We need to be realistic in how we deal with the issue of energy and climate change in Africa. Thirdly, youth is a challenge. It is wonderful to have that great dividend of a large number of young people. The working age population is shrinking in developed countries and aging populations require a lot of health care interventions. How can we support that? We need more workers. These are the key areas we need to focus on: Youth, energy, of course also agriculture, and we need to help face the current challenges of climate and conflict.
GPI: Many German and European investors see the African market as fragmented. Is there a way to create a common African market and do we need a free trade area?
Mo Ibrahim: Absolutely. One thing I’ve been complaining about all the time is the “balkanisation” of the African Common Market. I was delighted with the recent developments of the African Continental Free Trade Agreement. It is a first step. In my view, the main success of the European Union is the common market. It is amazing. It is what helped raise the GDP of all European countries. The Office of Budget Responsibility in the UK, which is a governmental independent body, estimates that the UK is going to lose four percent of GDP every year because of its exit from the common market. Four per cent of GDP is huge, that is 70 billion pounds every year. That the value of the common market: Friction-less trade between nations. Africa needs that even more because there are more small and landlocked countries. It is natural for us to do that. It is also important for employment. 80 percent of migrants move within Africa, actually. African migration is essentially within the continent. This should be linked to the job market. It should also make it much easier for investments. I don’t want to invest in a country of two million people. There were no trade agreements to anybody else because of a ceiling to what one can do. But if you have a market of 1.2 or 1.3 billion people, that’s something. That was China. China, in the end, was a huge market. That’s how it was able to develop and engineer its rise, by using the strengths of that huge market.
GPI: Mo, you talked about the job market. This is one of your big topics. What is the best way to create new jobs in Africa, maybe through European companies?
Mo Ibrahim: Due to demographic realities, jobs are the main challenge for Africa. We need between 15 to 30 million jobs every year just to meet the demand of young people coming out of schools. Jobs can only be created by investment, so we need investments. We need to invest in infrastructure and energy. We need to build roads. We need to develop our digital economy. We need to overhaul our agriculture because the agricultural future of Africa is huge and not even tapped. We also need to create the right environment for that investment. What we’re fighting for is the issue of governance. We need to make doing business in Africa much easier and more secure. We need to remove that red flag, what people call Africa’s risk factor. We can only remove that by transparent governments, good governance, lack of corruption and, of course, by opening our borders to our neighbours to create a good market for investors. That is a way forward we need to encourage. European cooperation should focus on creating jobs for young people. It is important for Europe in terms of migration. Who migrates to Europe? It’s the young, able, smart, active guys who really want a better life and to work. They don’t come to Europe to live on social security. They come to Europe to work. Now, Europe needs workers, no question about it, given the demography of Europe.
GPI: Thank you very much for taking the time to talk with us today.
Judith Ramadan, Project Management