Blazing the trail could involve several branches of mathematics – Arithmetic, Geometry, Trigonometry, Topology, Calculus, Algebra, and Statistics.
The Pathfinder, whether a mathematician or not, could intermittently catch themselves neck-deep into calculations of all sorts. Mo Ibrahim, born Mohammed Ibrahim in Sudan on the 3rd of May 1946, an engineer by training, thoroughly did his time calculating the costs and consequences of carving a path.
Beyond the magics of mathematics and the energy of engineering, the path of a pathfinder demands some guts, gusto, preparedness, and passion. Mo Ibrahim has definitely demonstrated all the qualities and qualifications of a true trailblazer.
How do you describe the man who saw a future that contrasted the certainties of the era he was born and raised in? Across Africa, from 1946 when he was born, who could have thought that mobile telecommunications would become an inseparable part of life in urban and rural Africa? Who else from Africa could have unearthed, in 1998, the path to mobile communication?
Who is credited with “transforming a continent”, and is said to be the “most powerful black man in Britain”? Who else but the son of a clerk who, in 2008, was ranked first in the annual power list of the most influential Black Britons?
How do you describe a man like Mo? It takes guts and grit, similar to his, to do an exhaustive expose on the man. I can only give it a fair shot.
Nubia, an ancient region of southern Egypt and northern Sudan, is the root of this enigmatic iroko tree that has gone ahead to provide shade for an entire continent. Born and raised in Sudan, young Mo, after completing his preliminary studies, followed his parents and the rest of the family to Alexandria, Egypt. His father was employed there by a cotton company. His mother strongly pushed for he and his four siblings to get good education.
He enrolled in Alexandria University for a degree in electrical engineering. After earning a Bachelor’s degree in science, he returned to Sudan, where he started working as an engineer in the state-run Sudan Telecom.
In 1974, he moved to England and gained admission at the University of Bradford. After earning his master’s degree in electronics and electrical engineering, he went on to attain a Ph.D. in mobile communications from the University of Birmingham. His pioneering academic work included the reuse of radio frequencies. Simultaneously, he taught at the University of Birmingham.
He left academia in 1983 to become the technical director of Cellnet (later O2), which handled wireless operations for British telecommunications giant BT. In 1989, having learned the nuances of the field, he resigned to start up Mobile Systems International, a consultancy and software company, that designed mobile networks.
He would later sell the company, in 2000, to telecommunications company Marconi for more than $900 million.
Mo used MSI Cellular Investments to address the lack of a pan-African mobile telephone network, consequently Celtel International, one of the first mobile phone companies serving Africa and the Middle East, was born. Celtel changed the way people lived, making mobile communications a vital part of existence.
He created a business plan that was built around the idea that no bribes would be given or accepted by him and his cofounders, a path that only Pathfinders ply in blunt defiance to the status quo.
Celtel expanded quickly to become one of the largest companies providing mobile communications services in Africa, offering coverage to more than a dozen countries and hundreds of millions of people. After its arrival, the number of mobile phones in the continent grew from 7.5 million users in 1999 to 76.8 million users by 2004.
In 2005 Ibrahim sold Celtel to MTC Kuwait for $3.4 billion but continued to serve as chairman of the company until 2007 when he retired from its board.
He subsequently focused his attention on investing and philanthropic efforts, and at the core of this is the Mo Ibrahim Foundation, which he created in 2006 to foster improved governance of African countries by fighting corrupt leadership in Africa.
The foundation promoted increased accountability via the birthing of The Ibrahim Index, a rating system for governing bodies. In 2007, based on the Index, it began to award the Ibrahim Prize to African heads of state who deliver security, health, education and economic development to their constituents, and democratically transfer power to their successors. The first recipient of the admired award is former president Joaquim Chissano of Mozambique.
Ibrahim recognized that these standards were so lofty that the prize, intended as an annual one, might not be claimed in some years. In fact, after the 2008 edition, the prize was not bestowed again until 2011. From inception, the Ibrahim Prize was worth $5 million, paid over a decade, plus an additional life stipend, which made it the largest individual prize in the world.
Founded in London, the Foundation also offers scholarships at the University of Birmingham, SOAS, and London Business School. These scholarships are on topics of International Development at the University of Birmingham, Governance of Development in Africa at SOAS, and an MBA at London Business School. The scholarships are initiated for African students, both masters’ students and postgraduates. It also intentionally promotes increased accountability within African companies.
Since 2010, he has been an active supporter of the Broadband Commission for Digital Development. The commission is a United Nations initiative and aims at spreading the benefits of broadband services to unconnected people.
Ibrahim has been bestowed with an honorary Doctorate in Economics by the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies. In 2011, he received the Honorary Doctor of Laws Degree from the University of Pennsylvania.
He has been the proud recipient of several awards including the GSM Association’s Chairman’s Award for Lifetime Achievement in 2007, the BNP Paribas Prize for Philanthropy in 2008, and the Clinton Global Citizen award in 2010.
In 2012, he was conferred with two awards: the Millennium Excellence Award for Actions in Africa and the David Rockefeller Bridging Leadership Award. In 2011, he received the Africare Leadership Award and Kiel Institute Global Economy Prize.
In May 2014, he was presented with the Eisenhower Medal for Distinguished Leadership and Service. The following month, he was bestowed with the Foreign Policy Association Medal.
Mo Ibrahim is the Cofounder and Co-chair of the Africa Europe Foundation, which was launched in 2020 to reset and bolster Africa-Europe relations.
In 1973, Ibrahim married Hania Morsi Fadl, an Alexandria University graduate from the year above him, whom he had known since childhood. They are now divorced, and Fadl is a Sudanese-born British radiologist, running the only breast cancer clinic in Sudan.
They have a daughter, Hadeel Ibrahim, who is executive director of the Mo Ibrahim Foundation, vice chair of the Africa Centre in New York, and a board member of the Clinton Foundation; and two sons Hosh and Sami Ibrahim.
A Pathfinder’s path is one of flexibility and focus. Mo Ibrahim was raised to get an education and idolized scientists such as Marie Curie. He was raised to respect professions such as engineering and medicine. He admits being suspicious of business people in his growing years. Fast-forward several decades and Ibrahim is now a billionaire businessperson — something a man who didn’t initially trust those running companies never expected would happen.
Because of his up bringing and social background, he assumed businessmen are crooks or people involved in funny stuff. Growing up, they had more respect for professions. He thought that to earn honest money and to do the right work, one should become a doctor, an engineer, or take on any other profession. He was on the route to becoming a Technocrat, but a popular saying goes “the reward for hard work is more work.” He was flexible enough to ditch his childhood orientation to answer a higher calling.
He originally was going to work for big organizations, but the restlessness, the flexibility, and the tenacity of a Pathfinder kicked in. He got fed up working in a large company, the bureaucracy frustrated his burning passion. He decided to be “a consultant.”
He has a majority stake in Satya Capital, a private equity fund that invests in African startups, such as Pan-African digital firm company Cellulant, African businesses, education, and healthcare.
According to Ibrahim, progress, development, and peace are the fundamentals for a bright future for the African continent. “Democracy and rule of law are very important, and we need to pay a lot of attention to them. But this is not the whole story. People cannot eat democracy. If we have democracy, but there’s no food on the table, or we have famine, what we’re going to do with democracy,” he once said in a popular interview.
He also said: “We need peace in Africa because conflict destroys the government and our chances of moving forward. We need to develop skills; we need more technical schools because that is education for employment. People can find work with it. It’s important to listen to young people because the future belongs to them, not to us old men.”
This African engineer who had taught business people were crooks until he founded a company and became a billionaire had also pledged to give at least half of his wealth to charity by joining The Giving Pledge.
The twists, the turns, the tests, the triumphs; the trade, the tradition, the thoughts and the tenacity to execute them, all sum up to the robust testimony of a Pathfinder.