Billionaire Ibrahim Defies African ‘Basket Case’ Cliches

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Mo Ibrahim, a Sudanese-born billionaire philanthropist, says the Ebola outbreak in West Africa has once again painted the entire continent as a disaster zone.

It’s a perception he’s been working to dispel since selling his African mobile-phone network for $3.4 billion in 2005 and founding the Mo Ibrahim Foundation to promote honest and accountable government. His primary tool: data.

The Ibrahim Index of African Governance measures how well nations are developing their economies, safeguarding rights and guaranteeing the rule of law. Researchers synthesize information from 34 sources, including the International Monetary Fund and African Development Bank. Atop the 2014 list: Mauritius, Bloomberg Markets magazine will report in its March issue. On the bottom: Somalia.

“The Ibrahim indices have become benchmarks of governance in Africa and important tools for investors and risk managers,” says Hendrik du Toit, chief executive officer of Investec Asset Management, a firm that originated in South Africa and is now based in London.

Ibrahim, 68, spoke with Bloomberg Markets about the challenges and opportunities of investing in the second-most-populous continent. Excerpts are below:

Two Extremes

There is a tendency to make general judgments: ‘Africa is a basket case,’ or ‘Africa is rising.’ We always lurch from one extreme to the other. What people need to do is spend a little time looking at the granularity of what’s happening in Africa.

If you go to some parts of the Congo, you might say, ‘This is jungle; this is ungovernable.’

Other countries are fracturing -- look at what’s happening in Libya. That’s a complete failure. Go to other nations, such as Botswana or Mauritius, and you’ll see a pleasant place with a sensible government. Namibia is a very well-run country. It’s huge, with a lot of potential resources, and it has good roads and railways. This is a country investors should look at.

Ebola Successes

Senegal and Nigeria managed to control the situation. The federal government and the state government of Lagos played an important role. We saw civil society play a major role, and Nigerian business. It shows what can be achieved when society comes together in a moment of real unity.

The battle is also in dealing with traumatized communities. Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea are each coming out of conflicts. An initiative must address how to make these countries more resilient to handle the next outbreak.

Reliable Data

With the data collected over the last 10 years, we hope academics are able to troll through and discern the key drivers. We need to understand the links between security and development or between education and development or between human rights and development. These questions can be answered only by getting reliable data; otherwise, it becomes a discussion dominated by polemics and ideological differences.

I love Africa and have always been gunning for people to invest. I prefer to be an African realist. To do that, we need facts.

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