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Mo Ibrahim
Image: picture-alliance/AP Photo/B. Curtis

Mo Ibrahim on governance in the face of a pandemic

Benita van Eyssen | Eddy Micah
June 7, 2020

The influential Sudanese-British businessman speaks to DW about US President Donald Trump's criticism of the WHO and what is needed to improve international organizations and governance in Africa.


DW: The United States has accused the World Health Organization (WHO) of mismanaging the pandemic and pandering to China. Do you think the African Union should take a closer look?

Mo Ibrahim: One clear fact is that any organization, any club, is as good as its members. It is controlled by the constitution created by those members and the way those members behave. The World Health Organization has no authority to force China to accept inspectors or to challenge its numbers. It relies on the goodwill and integrity of its members.

Let us be sensible in doing this. Obviously, no organization is perfect, but we are in the middle of a pandemic and this is the only international organization we have to deal with it. Is this the right time to try to check or try to close down this organization?

If you're mid-flight over the Atlantic, it's the wrong time to try and repair your engine. You put safety first. Let us get out of this pandemic and then look at the governance of this organization and how to improve it.

President Trump's unhappiness with the WHO? I think he's facing a tough election year and there are domestic issues about his handling of the crisis. There is a blame game, and that's part of it. It's targeted at a domestic audience really and it's not appropriate. I really don't agree with Mr. Trump's action. It's the wrong time to stop funding our international organizations in the middle of a crisis. I am really sad and disappointed.

Read more: Coronavirus latest: Trump says US is 'terminating' ties with WHO

Donald Trump
US citizens accused President Donald Trump of playing down the severity of the pandemic as infections spikedImage: imago images/ZUMA Wire/D. Mills

I think what we need to do with our international organizations is to improve the system of governance. Unfortunately, many of these organizations are more or less becoming the tools of the few large shareholders on their boards. When you have a crisis in international relationships —  as we do now with the United States and China — we see the beginning of a new Cold War era. The international organization is the battleground between the superpowers. That's really unfortunate.

We Africans, who do not even have the power to abuse any of these organizations, can only really ask for a better governance regime.

Read more: What does Trump's funding freeze mean for the WHO?

Africa has tens of thousands of people with COVID-19 infections and thousands of deaths. Is the continent on the right track fighting the pandemic?

Africa has so far been a little lucky because we didn't see high numbers. There are various theories — none of them proven — and the experts are scratching their heads. We see the numbers rising and the WHO is expecting things to get worse towards the autumn.

Africa, fortunately, had some space because the virus reached us a little later and Africa acted, to its credit, very quickly and tried to coordinate. I think that the vast majority of African leaders really acted honorably and globally.

A group of women hold a placard with the words: We need food
In countries such as South Africa, many people are under lockdown and in desperate need of food Image: picture-alliance/D. Lloyd

COVID-19 lockdowns in Africa have caused incredible hardship. How long can Africa endure?

I don't think that the kind of measures adopted by Western countries can really be implemented in Africa, for a number of reasons.

Many Africans earn their living day by day and we cannot just lock them up at home without providing them with food or income, which Western countries are able to do. We don't have the physical space or the financial resources to do that. People can die of hunger.

The problem is social. Social distancing is a problem in big cities with cramped accommodation and slums. It's tough — maybe 30% of Africans don't have running water, so how could you ask people to wash their hands every now and then?

Read more: Africa's lockdowns a death trap of another kind for the poor

What are the economic prospects for Africa post-COVID-19?

Fortunately, for some strange reason, the virus so far has been quite friendly in Africa relative to the devastation it is causing elsewhere. But I'm sorry to say that's what worries me.

African economies are fragile. It could be even worse than the health consequences, unfortunately. Much of our revenue is dependent on the export of raw materials. That sector has been hit badly.

The oil-producing countries have been hit very badly. We expect a recession in Africa for the first time in 25 years or so. Debt now is also a big problem. Africa is expected to pay $44 billion (€39 billion) in interest on existing loans, which are about $400 billion or so. The money is not there, obviously.

Agriculture in Africa has been very badly hit by the locust phenomena. Which state is going to catch up, especially in eastern Africa? So, we are really worried about famine and food security in Africa.

Data visualization: Movement of locust swarms and bands, 2018 to 2020

What has the pandemic taught Africa?

There are so many valuable lessons we should really draw out of this. To start with, we need to have resilient health care systems in our countries where it is underfunded, underresourced, understaffed. We are not paying enough attention to that. Only 10 countries out of 54 countries have free universal health care systems. That's one sector really to pay attention to.

The second lesson we learned is this overdependence on minerals, oil and the export of raw materials is not really the way forward. A half percent of Africans work in that sector — it is not providing employment for our people.

Seventy percent of our crude oil is exported. It's a joke — we are not even processing our own raw materials. We need to get over this and pay attention to other sectors of the economy to build resilience. You can't just depend on one product and leave off oil or diamonds or cobalt.

The 77 percent – Africa young innovators amid COVID-19

There are two sides to this story. I really welcome the entrepreneurial spirit where we could go and invent things. One lab in Senegal, for example, managed to develop a reasonable coronavirus test, which costs only $1. That's great.

Somebody in Madagascar claimed that they have a cure. Interesting but any medicine needs proper trials and approval before it is applied to people. We cannot just dish out things to people without appreciating what the side effects are. So, let us test it.

What role has the Mo Ibrahim Foundation played amid the pandemic?

We are really doing what we set out to do: trying to provide decisionmakers and leaders in Africa with accurate data and analysis of what's going on. So very early on with COVID-19, we went through a detailed analysis of our capabilities and resources in Africa and what's happening and what needs to be done.

We also issued four research papers. One about the impact on the food situation in Africa, one about the debt in Africa and how we're going to deal with that, and a call action to really offer some support for the Africans who are calling for the cancellation of some of the debt.

Governments and the private sector need to create a situation to help. European countries and Americans are putting trillions of dollars companies. Who is supporting the African private sector at this time? Nobody.

We also published a paper about COVID-19 and democracy and the elections in Africa. We have a number of elections coming on in Africa. How are we going to handle this? Do governments acquire so much executive powers, which could be a threat to democracy? It's similar to the debate going on in the Western world. What is the fine line, the balance, between public order to deal with the pandemic and the private freedoms and liberty? We do weekly briefings about the situation in Africa.

Read more: Ugandan journalists 'assaulted by security forces' amid coronavirus lockdowns

Police on patrol in Kibera, Nairobi
In Nigeria, South Africa, Uganda and Kenya soldiers and police have used brutal means to keep people off the streetsImage: picture-alliance/AP Photo/B. Inganga

The African Union's agenda this year is silencing the guns. Is this goal achievable?

It is a very noble goal but, unfortunately, it has not really been met or is likely to be met. It is not only the African Union calling for silencing the guns. The United Nations secretary-general issued the call as well. So, we have two powerful voices pushing, but that is not happening. The conflict in Libya is still going on, with various parties still supplying arms in the face of the international embargo. The hostilities are still going on. We see jihadists — jihadists don't care about calls and are still killing people in the marketplaces. So, unfortunately, these forces are not listening.

The conflicts are different. In Libya, it has an international dimension — many different countries supporting different parties. It is the job, not only of Africa but of the international community to say 'Hands off, let's find a peaceful to resolve the issues here.' It's not just a question of fighting terrorists, but of dealing with the roots of terrorism.

We have a strand of extremism, religious, misguided groups. We have conflicts also because farmers and herders are really contesting land. This also has its roots in climate change because grazing land is disappearing. Conflicts are coming out of marginalization of some groups of our society and inequality is playing a role there.

There are so many different faces to terrorism and conflict and we need to deal with the root of each of it. It will be a process but we really must embark on it with wide eyes.

Read more: Nigeria: The politicized herders and farmers conflict

Aliko Dangote (left foreground) and Akinwumi Adesina (right foreground)
AfDB chief Akinwumi Adesina (right foreground) in coversation with Aliko Dangote, Africa's richest manImage: DW/F. Quenum

African Development Bank (AfDB) chief Akinwumi Adesina is facing allegations of corruption. How should this matter be handled?

I think we need to have a proper process. Of course, governance is very important. I am not privy to the specific of the allegations, so I don't know if these allegations are true or not because I haven't seen that or talk to any side there.

But if there are allegations, it needs to be investigated in a proper way. I understand the US is asking for an independent investigation — fine. Let's have an independent, credible process then and act upon it because the African Development Bank is very important for Africa, especially at this time when you can not have it paralyzed. We need to deal with this issue very quickly so the bank can continue to deal with its task and mission. In Africa, it is needed very much at this stage.

To be honest, I'm not in a position to evaluate his performance because I've never carried out an audit of the bank or looked at its operations. Maybe I should have been privy to more the issues in the bank, but I am not really. So, I am not going to insist to judge really. That's a matter for the board and the shareholders to decide.

Read more: Nigeria-US friction over embattled AfDB chief Akinwumi Adesina

AU buildings behind a plaque
The AU headquarter complex in Ethiopia was build as a gift to Africa by in China Image: Getty Images

Let us build a credible institution. We need to safeguard the integrity of the institution. It's not about personalities. It's not about nationality. It's not about individuals.

It's about the process. We need to have the right process in moving forward. We need everybody to calm down and deal with it professionally and with integrity.

We cannot talk about sovereignty if we are not willing to put our hands in our pocket and fund the bank. We Africans like to talk a lot about sovereignty, but when we come to the price of sovereignty, then we don't want to pay. Why?

Any African country is welcome to become a major shareholder. Show me your money — simple as that. Even the AU, until recently, 95% of our operational budget was supported by the European Union. And of course, that was a big issue and (Rwandan) President (Paul) Kagame was trying to push African countries to enhance their contributions because that is a way to talk about sovereignty.

If we want an African free trade area with a strong AU, we will have to contribute. We cannot just sit there and ask people to come and fund the AU, come and fund Africa. We should walk the talk if we talk about sovereignty, African unity, African pride. 

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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