AfDB’s President Akinwumi Adesina is a man in a hurry

By Estelle Maussion
Posted on Monday, 6 June 2022 09:09

Akinwumi Adesina, president of the African Development Bank, on 10 November 2021 in Paris. Damien Grenon for JA

Omnipresent at the African Development Bank (AfDB) Annual Meetings, Akinwumi Adesina, head of the pan-African institution, has been pushing for faster action on debt. At the cost of ruffling some shareholder feathers.

Tuesday, 24 May 2022. The Kempinski Hotel in Accra, Ghana. 6:30pm on the second day of the Annual Meetings of the AfDB. Following an opening ceremony, a high-level lunch and the first meeting of the Board of Governors, Adesina arrived in the hotel lobby at a run.

Behind him, a member of his team, when asked by one of his colleagues if everything was all right, said in a whisper: “We haven’t stopped running.”

A few minutes later, Mozambique’s President Filipe Nyusi and the Nigerian leader attended the signing of an agreement to support a 1,500 MW hydroelectric project in the northern part of the country. “You are a president in a hurry to get results. I am therefore your ally because the bank, too, shares that same urgency.”

The ceremony followed its course: applause was requested for the project’s architects, Nyusi’s leadership was warmly welcomed, and a few choice words made the assembly laugh. After President Nyusi’s speech, the two men left the room together, as friends. Adesina then resumed his journey, as a state dinner awaited him.

The AfDB president maintained this rhythm over the past week in Accra. Since taking over the reins of the pan-African institution in 2015, the 60-year-old with a broad smile has set the pace. This is how the former Nigerian minister of agriculture (2011-2015) sees his office. “For me, being AfDB president is not a job. It is a mission – that of accelerating the development of the continent where I was born,” he said at the opening ceremony on 24 May.

He was repeating the same message he had said seven years ago when he succeeded Rwanda’s Donald Kaberuka and more recently, in 2020, when he was unanimously re-elected following a governance crisis.

Unprecedented visibility

His dynamism inspires, and his ambition for Africa galvanises. “It’s time for action”, “Let’s go”, “We have a unique opportunity to make a difference”, “We must do more and faster”, were the words heard throughout the meetings from the mouths of presidents, ministers, governors and the AfDB’s senior officials. When discussing climate finance, expanding agricultural production, powering the continent and reallocating the Special Drawing Rights (SDRs) of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the same call to think big and act fast prevails.

Energetic and iconic, Adesina’s style – embodied by the timeless striped suit and bow tie – has helped transform the AfDB. Under his leadership, the Bank has emerged from a state of inertia with a clear and attractive roadmap – the “High Five”, the five pillars of the Bank’s work – and has gained unprecedented visibility on the international scene. By referring to the IMF’s managing director as “my friend Kristalina”, Adesina emphasised both the AfDB’s connections abroad and its ability to deal with the world’s big boys on an equal footing.

Self-confident and a brilliant communicator, the AfDB boss is the standard-bearer of a continent capable of taking its destiny into its own hands, free of past and present dependencies. The speech was a hit with the bank’s African shareholders (who hold a 60% majority stake). “Africa must feed itself with pride. There is no dignity in begging for food. It is time to guarantee our food sovereignty,” he said during his opening speech, triggering a round of applause.

There is a flip side. Adesina’s style, attractive to many, can be divisive. Some of the bank’s non-African shareholders (minority shareholders, up to 40%) in particular resent it. “There is a conflict between two legitimacies, that of the continental members, the main beneficiaries of the funds, and that of the foreign members, the main contributors,” says a European shareholder. While these tensions are nothing new, the attitude of the AfDB’s boss tends to exacerbate them.

A divisive personality

One of the topics of discussion at these meetings is the replenishment of the African Development Fund (ADF), the AfDB Group’s concessional window for low-income countries. The process requires the cash commitment of donor countries, the majority of which are foreign shareholders. They did not take kindly to seeing Adesina begin discussions at the beginning of April, ahead of the meetings and in a very offensive manner, stating that a refusal on their part was not acceptable (“no is not an answer”). Once in Accra, even though the climate had calmed down, the negotiations stalled, as the power struggle had reinforced the reticence of several donors.

Linked to these tensions is the president’s low tolerance for criticism – his authoritarianism, some say – which is also a source of discomfort. This was made evident at the beginning of his term in office when three vice-presidents, Ghana’s Solomon Asamoah, Côte d’Ivoire’s Albéric Kacou and Tanzania’s Frannie Léautier, left, even though Adesina himself had appointed the latter two. The issue resurfaced in 2020 during the governance crisis, from which the president eventually emerged clean and strong.

This sensitivity reappeared on the sidelines of the annual meetings. It was triggered by the publication, on the Friday before the opening of the event, of an article in The Economist that pointed out flaws in the bank’s management and governance. Immediately denouncing a “smear campaign” on Twitter, the AfDB president used his opening speech to drive the point home, dismissing “lies, misinformation and tabloid stories”. Even though he was applauded, his reaction offended some members of the audience, who considered it excessive.

Clarification

Just before this episode, the Nigerian leader had, moreover, made a clarification regarding his future, as his country’s press had for several weeks touted him as a candidate in the February 2023 presidential election. Thanking his many supporters, Adesina had issued a statement on 17 May in which he said that he had no intention of entering the electoral race. “I remain fully focused on the mission of supporting Africa’s accelerated development and economic integration,” he said, thus avoiding having the subject disrupt the general assemblies.

Although the AfDB presidency is far from being without challenges, it is clear that Adesina is fully in command for the moment. A stimulating spur for some, irritating for others, he still has three years – unless the situation changes – to meet his challenge of fast-tracking the continent’s development.

Asked about the tensions that his personality may generate, a West African shareholder replies: “He has repositioned the AfDB, whether we like it or not.”

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