TONIGHT ON THE TERRORDOME: Sudanese telecomm billionaire Mohamed Ibrahim on Building Communication, Wealth and Democracy Across Africa

6 pm Mountain Time

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The prevailing imagery in Western corporate media about the 54 countries of Africa is predictable and simplistic. Jungles and deserts, swollen bellies and child soldiers, dictators and decay.

Yet the realities are far more diverse for the planet’s second largest continent, and often, they are remarkably inspiring. Take mobile telephones. It’s true that the Congo War has claimed 5 million lives, and it’s true that the war is fought to rob the Democratic Republic of Congo of its unparalleled resources.

Those resources include the planet’s greatest supply of coltan, the indispensable ingredient in all modern computerised technology including mobile phones, without which the world would fall silent.

But the untold and unknown story is that because it’s easier to construct cellular telephone towers than land lines, Africa has become a leader in mobile phone use and innovation.

People in various African countries use mobile telephones as debit cards, and they’re using them to outmaneuver corrupt officials trying to steal elections, and farmers are using them to outwit predatory middlemen and traders trying to steal their wealth.

Those victories are owed in large measure to one man, the Sudanese cellular billionaire, Dr. Mohamed Ibrahim. Born in 1946, Ibrahim received his PhD in mobile communications from the University of Birmingham and worked for various European corporations including British Telecom before founding the companies MSI and Celtel.

Ibrahim’s entrepreneurial insight was to build a network of cellular communication across the African continent. Despite repeated warnings from colleagues and partners not to take such capital-intensive risks, that venture made Ibrahim one of the wealthiest people in the world.

When he sold his company MSI, his 800 employees owned 30% of the stock, earning them rewards unseen for most tech-sector workers. According to Forbes magazine, Ibrahim himself possesses approximately $2.5 billion.

Ibrahim swears that money was never his goal. In 2007, the Mo Ibrahim Foundation awarded its first Prize for Achievement in African Leadership, a $7 million award for democratically-elected African presidents whose work substantially improved their citizens’ lives.

The money, argues Ibrahim, is not only to celebrate such excellent leadership, but to provide prestige, comfort and security for leaders who cannot, unlike their Northern counterparts, rely on endless consultancies and speaking engagements which routinely yield millions of dollars annually.

Dr Ibrahim has been awarded honorary doctorates from the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies, and from the University of Birmingham and De Montfort University, Leicester.

Ibrahim has also received honorary the Fellowship Award from the London School of Business, the Wharton University Philanthropic Award, the Chairman’s Award for Lifetime Achievement from the Global Systems for Mobile Communications, the Economists Innovation Award for Social & Economic Innovation, and the BNP Paribas Prize for Philanthropy.

TIME Magazine placed Ibrahim on its 2008 and 2009 lists of the world’s 100 most influential people.

Tonight we’ll hear a talk Ibrahim delivered at the University of Geneva for the inaugural Citizens Cyberscience Lecture Series. He spoke in October 2009.


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