I spent March with a delegation of activists, entrepreneurs and policy wonks roaming western, southern and eastern Africa trying very hard to listen — always hard for a big-mouthed Irishman. With duct tape over my gob, I was able to pick up some interesting melody lines everywhere from palace to pavement …Despite the almost deafening roar of excitement about Africa’s hosting of soccer’s World Cup this summer, we managed to hear a surprising thing. Harmony … flowing from two sides that in the past have often been discordant: Africa’s emerging entrepreneurial class and its civil-society activists.
It’s no secret that lefty campaigners can be cranky about business elites. And the suspicion is mutual. Worldwide. Civil society as a rule sees business as, well, a little uncivil. Business tends to see activists as, well, a little too active. But in Africa, at least from what I’ve just seen, this is starting to change. The energy of these opposing forces coming together is filling offices, boardrooms and bars. The reason is that both these groups — the private sector and civil society — see poor governance as the biggest obstacle they face. So they are working together on redefining the rules of the African game.
Entrepreneurs know that even a good relationship with a bad government stymies foreign investment; civil society knows a resource-rich country can have more rather than fewer problems, unless corruption is tackled.
This joining of forces is being driven by some luminous personalities, few of whom are known in America; all of whom ought to be. Let me introduce you to a few of the catalysts:
John Githongo, Kenya’s famous whistleblower, has had to leave his country in a hurry a couple of times; he was hired by his government to clean things up and then did his job too well. He’s now started a group called Inuka, teaming up the urban poor with business leaders, creating inter-ethnic community alliances to fight poverty and keep watch on dodgy local governments. He is the kind of leader who gives many Kenyans hope for the future, despite the shakiness of their coalition government.
Sharing a table with Githongo and me one night in Nairobi was DJ Rowbow, a Mike Tyson doppelgänger. His station, Ghetto Radio, was a voice of reason when the volcano of ethnic tension was exploding in Kenya in 2008. While some were encouraging the people of Kibera, one of the largest slums in Africa, to go on the rampage, this scary-looking man decoded the disinformation and played peacemaker/interlocutor. On the station’s playlist is Bob Marley and a kind of fizzy homespun reggae music that’s part the Clash, part Marvin Gaye. The only untruthful thing he said all evening was that he liked U2. For my part, I might have overplayed the Jay-Z and Beyoncé card. “They are friends of mine,” I explained to him, eh, a lot.
Now this might be what you expect me to say, but I’m telling you, it was a musician in Senegal who best exemplified the new rules. Youssou N’Dour — maybe the greatest singer on earth — owns a newspaper and is in the middle of a complicated deal to buy a TV station. You sense his strategy and his steel. He is creating the soundtrack for change, and he knows just how to use his voice. (I tried to imagine what it would be like if I owned The New York Times as well as, say, NBC. Someday, someday…)
In Maputo, Mozambique, I met with Activa, a women’s group that, among other things, helps entrepreneurs get seed capital. Private and public sectors mixed easily here, under the leadership of Luisa Diogo, the country’s former prime minister, who is now the matriarch in this mesmerizing stretch of eastern Africa. Famous for her Star Wars hairdo and political nous, she has the lioness energy of an Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, a Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala or a Graça Machel.
When I met with Ms. Diogo and her group, the less famous but equally voluble women in the room complained about excessive interest rates on their microfinance loans and the lack of what they called “regional economic integration.” For them, infrastructure remains the big (if unsexy) issue. “Roads, we need roads,” one entrepreneur said by way of a solution to most of the obstacles in her path. Today, she added, “we women, we are the roads.” I had never thought of it that way but because women do most of the farming, they’re the ones who carry produce to market, collect the water and bring the sick to the clinics.
The true star of the trip was a human hurricane: Mo Ibrahim, a Sudanese entrepreneur who made a fortune in mobile phones.
I fantasized about being the boy wonder to his Batman, but as we toured the continent together I quickly realized I was Alfred, Batman’s butler. Everywhere we went, I was elbowed out of the way by young and old who wanted to get close to the rock star reformer and his beautiful, frighteningly smart daughter, Hadeel, who runs Mo’s foundation and is a chip off the old block (in an Alexander McQueen dress). Mo’s speeches are standing-room-only because even when he is sitting down, he’s a standing-up kind of person. In a packed hall in the University of Ghana, he was a prizefighter, removing his tie and jacket like a cape, punching young minds into the future.
His brainchild, the Ibrahim Prize, is a very generous endowment for African leaders who serve their people well and then — and this is crucial — leave office when they are supposed to. Mo has diagnosed a condition he calls “third-termitis,” where presidents, fearing an impoverished superannuation, feather their nests on the way out the door. So Mo has prescribed a soft landing for great leaders. Not getting the prize is as big a story as getting it. (He doesn’t stop at individuals. The Ibrahim Index ranks countries by quality of governance.)
Mo smokes a pipe and refers to everyone as “guys” — as in, “Listen, guys, if these problems are of our own making, the solutions will have to be, too.” Or, in my direction, “Guys, if you haven’t noticed … you are not African.” Oh, yeah. And: “Guys, you Americans are lazy investors. There’s so much growth here but you want to float in the shallow water of the Dow Jones or Nasdaq.”
Mr. Ibrahim is as searing about corruption north of the Equator as he is about corruption south of it, and the corruption that crosses over … illicit capital flight, unfair mining contracts, the aid bureaucracy.
So I was listening. Good for me. But did I actually learn anything?
OVER long days and nights, I asked Africans about the course of international activism. Should we just pack it up and go home, I asked? There were a few nods. But many more noes. Because most Africans we met seemed to feel the pressing need for new kinds of partnerships, not just among governments, but among citizens, businesses, the rest of us. I sense the end of the usual donor-recipient relationship.
Aid, it’s clear, is still part of the picture. It’s crucial, if you have H.I.V. and are fighting for your life, or if you are a mother wondering why you can’t protect your child against killers with unpronounceable names or if you are a farmer who knows that new seed varietals will mean you have produce that you can take to market in drought or flood. But not the old, dumb, only-game-in-town aid — smart aid that aims to put itself out of business in a generation or two. “Make aid history” is the objective. It always was. Because when we end aid, it’ll mean that extreme poverty is history. But until that glorious day, smart aid can be a reforming tool, demanding accountability and transparency, rewarding measurable results, reinforcing the rule of law, but never imagining for a second that it’s a substitute for trade, investment or self-determination.
I for one want to live to see Mo Ibrahim’s throw-down prediction about Ghana come true. “Yes, guys,” he said, “Ghana needs support in the coming years, but in the not-too-distant future it can be giving aid, not receiving it; and you, Mr. Bono, can just go there on your holidays.”
I’m booking that ticket.
In South Africa, with Madiba, the great Nelson Mandela — the person who, along with Desmond Tutu and the Edge, I consider to be my boss — I raised the question of regional integration through the African Development Bank, and the need for real investment in infrastructure … all the buzzwords. As Madiba smiled, I made a note to try not to talk about this stuff down at the pub — or in front of the band.
“And you, are you not going to the World Cup?” the great man chided me, changing the subject, having seen this wide-eyed zealotry before. “You are getting old and you are going to miss a great coming-out party for Africa.” The man who felt free before he was is still the greatest example of what real leadership can accomplish against the odds.
My family and I headed home … just in time, I was getting carried away. I was going native, aroused by the thought of railroads and cement mixers, of a different kind of World Cup fever, of opposing players joining the same team, a new formation, new tactics. For those of us in the fan club, I came away amazed (as I always am) by the diversity of the continent … but with a deep sense that the people of Africa are writing up some new rules for the game.
Bono, the lead singer of the band U2 and a co-founder of the advocacy group ONE and (Product) RED. He will receive the first-ever Atlantic Council Humanitarian Leadership Award for his efforts in mobilizing resources and awareness in fighting disease and extreme poverty in Africa, as well as for his work to address other pressing humanitarian challenges, at the 2010 Awards Dinner. This column first appeared in the New York Times. Illustration by Caleb Brown.