Doing business in a war zone

Mo Ibrahim on the role business can play in strengthening fragile states

mo ibrahim news article 0A2E4284A04A4A6FA799A6D32A1C41C5

Philanthropist and entrepreneur Mohamed “Mo” Ibrahim has revealed how his mobile communications empire, Celtel, operated in two war zones, as he discussed the role of business in redeveloping weakened states. 

Speaking at a
Wheeler Institute for Business Development event with Professor James Robinson of the University of Chicago and Jonathan Rosenthal, Africa Editor of The Economist, Ibrahim said business had an important role to play in supporting struggling nations.

The panel formed part of a two-day event ‘Business and Fragile States: Learning from Research and Practice’, which explored international development from a business perspective.

While acknowledging the risks of corruption, Ibrahim said Celtel entered Sierra Leone and the Democratic Republic of Congo during civil wars. 

“Nobody destroyed the mobile phone towers,” he said. “Nobody touched them because everyone used them.”

Societies across Africa, he said, have subsequently benefited enormously from mobile telecommunications, of which Celtel was a prime mover.

Even though terrorists have used communication channels to spread propaganda, the widespread access to mobile phone networks has weakened despots’ publicity machines while promoting freedom and plurality in the media, he said.

Ultimately, Ibrahim argued, Africa needs jobs and wealth creation to stem the flow of migrants from the continent and put its fate into the hands of Africans.

Professor Robinson agreed, saying: “The private sector can help push the whole social and economic environment in a better, more functional direction.”

Since selling Celtel for US$3.4 billion (£2.5 billion) in 2005, Ibrahim has founded the Mo Ibrahim Foundation, which monitors African development annually and offers a generous cash prize to former democratic leaders who have strengthened their countries’ democracy, values and institutions.

The Wheeler Institute was founded in January 2018 following a £10 million donation from London Business School alumnus Tony Wheeler and his wife Maureen. Together, they founded Lonely Planet, the travel guide book publisher, in 1972.