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AfDB’s latest controversy: accusations against its president, Akinwumi Adesina

By Joël Té-Léssia Assoko
Posted on Thursday, 16 April 2020 13:21

Akinwumi Ayodeji Adesina
Akinwumi Ayodeji Adesina © Vincent Fournier/JA

In light of accusations by a group of anonymous “concerned staff members”, the president of the African Development Bank, currently running for a second term, has vigorously defended his integrity. An investigation is being launched into Akinwumi Adesina’s governance, human resources, deals and management.

The question is amusing to a West African minister familiar with the teams and operation of the African Development Bank (AfDB). A new controversy about the AfDB’s boss, is that really surprising? In his frantic race to be elected president of the pan-African institution in May 2015 and then in his dogged management of the bank over the past four and a half years, Akinwumi Adesina has stepped on a number of toes and made many enemies.

Initial shake-up

The first few years of the former Nigerian agriculture minister’s term witnessed an unprecedented wave of departures, including those of three vice presidents: Ghana’s Solomon Asamoah (Infrastructure) hired at the end of 2014 by Adesina’s predecessor Donald Kaberuka, as well as Côte d’Ivoire’s Albéric Kacou (Human Resources) and Tanzania’s Frannie Léautier (Senior Vice President), both recruited after Adesina took office.

Before Adesina even took up his position, the intense lobbying in favour of his candidacy by a delegation led by former AfDB president Olusegun Obasanjo and Nigeria’s finance minister at the time Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala had caused friction.

It ruffled the feathers of both the bank’s African shareholders, who had for a long time been split between Chad’s Bedoumra Kordjé and Zimbabwe’s Thomas Zondo Sakala, and the non-African ones, who had a preference for the candidacy of Cape Verde’s Cristina Duarte.

A possible sign of enduring grievances, a report issued in July 2016 by the French Treasury in Paris oddly lamented that “the AfDB’s new president very seldom speaks in French, and uses the language rarely, if at all, when talking about strategic or financial matters”. Yet, Adesina is fluent in French and conducts many press conferences in the language.

READ MORE: Trump’s World Bank boss critical of African Development Bank

A long list of grievances

However, the controversy the Nigerian leader has become engulfed in since the beginning of April is unprecedented. In documents received in recent weeks by several media outlets, including Jeune Afrique, The Africa Report, and our colleagues at the French daily Le Monde and the British bulletin Africa Confidential, a group of anonymous “concerned staff members” detailed a long list of grievances (16 in the English version and several dozen in the French version) towards the AfDB president.

Less lyrical than the French version, the English text is a formal document “disclosing various cases of alleged breaches of the Code of Conduct” addressed to the Office of Integrity and Anti-Corruption (PIAC) and to the presidents of the Ethics Committee and Audit and Finance Committee .

It lists a certain number of appointments and departures deemed questionable and, above all, mentions several contracts approved by Adesina’s teams supposedly in violation of the AfDB’s statutory and ethical rules.

Questionable contract awarding procedures

The French text includes a long account denouncing pell-mell and in a particularly vehement fashion the “unusual managerial style”, the “dominance of impunity and nepotism”, the “chaotic management of human resources” and the “financial waste and lack of budgetary discipline” characterising the organisation under Adesina. The document appears to have been drafted after the matter was referred to PIAC.

When Jeune Afrique contacted the group of staff members at the anonymous email address they had indicated, the following reply was received: “So that you don’t doubt our own dedication to the procedure, we waited six weeks for a response. The delay seems deliberate and, according to our sources, the inquiry has been hindered and has not even begun.”

In their missive to PIAC and the Audit Committee, the “concerned staff members” allude to several contracts governed by awarding procedures and rules that have been deemed questionable.

The staff members refer in particular to two deals, together valued at “more than $18m”, awarded by the Statistics Department to two information processing experts, one of whom is an internationally renowned expert from New York and the other a Russian national who is little known outside the relevant circles.

The anonymous document states that the deals were “fraudulently awarded” based on “fraud investigations and internal audits” which established “the guilt” of one of the bank’s top officials in 2016. The official was, as it happens, supposedly promoted several years later, representing “another example of impunity”, according to the letter Jeune Afrique consulted.

A global Swiss fertiliser giant in the hot seat

The same is true of a negotiated contract valued at $5.46m awarded by a Nigerian structure dedicated to agriculture and financed by a donation from the AfDB, whose stipulations prohibit awarding contracts under such conditions. The group of staff members incriminates one of the institution’s Nigerian managers, with the authors of the letter highlighting the manager’s alleged direct family relationship with the AfDB president.

While the missive sent to PIAC omits the identity of the beneficiary of the contract, the “whistle-blower” letter points the blame at a global Swiss fertiliser giant. The authors of the letter go on to indicate that despite the reservations expressed by the bank’s Office of the Auditor General, the invoice was nevertheless paid via the direct intervention of the pan-African institution’s president.

Two additional negotiated contracts with a Kenyan firm concern the Human Resources Department and amount to $2.1m, which – according to the document – is 20 times the approved sign-off limit for the manager involved. No disciplinary action seems to have been taken against the manager. Moreover, the authors of the letter were outraged that he left his position at the bank “with a bonus compensation paid by the AfDB”.

An ethics committee gone quiet…

“Despite the repeated requests made by board members, the bank still does not have a mechanism in place to prevent a staff member who is being held liable for misappropriation of funds from leaving the bank without paying the price for his or her crimes”, the authors of the letter wrote, adding that “the Ethics Office is useless”.

“At the board level, there is no longer an ethics committee”, they wrote.

However, the AfDB does have an ethics office, run by Paula Santos da Costa, a member of the Portuguese Bar Association and law graduate with degrees from Jean Monnet Saint-Étienne University, ISCTE (Lisbon) and the University of Lyon-3.

She previously worked at the Central Bank of West African States (BCEAO) and chaired the Disciplinary Board there before joining the Ethics Office at the pan-African bank at the end of 2010.

Although these accusations more or less directly implicate Adesina, they bring to mind the chain of accountability. Regarding the contract with the Swiss fertiliser company, the authors of the letter asserted: “This serious matter was not brought to the attention of the [executive] board, which calls into question the independence of PIAC –  the investigation unit – which reports to Mr Adesina.”

Led by seasoned professionals

This last accusation – included in the letter sent to the media, but not in the official document sent to the Audit Committee and PIAC – is especially serious given that the unit has been run for many years by seasoned professionals.

Since early 2019, it has been headed by British national Alan Bacarese, a veteran of the Crown Prosecution Service, former United Kingdom Senior Crown Prosecutor and former “technical advisor to the UK’s delegation to the OECD’s Working Group on Bribery”, according to his professional biography.

Prior to Bacarese, the position was held by Bubacarr Sankareh, a former auditor general of Gambia. Under his leadership, PIAC imposed “debarments of 76 months and 12 months on former Alstom companies” acquired by GE Power in 2015 due to findings that these companies “engaged in bribery and fraud in 2006 and 2011 in relation to two Bank-financed Egyptian power generation projects.”

Before Sankareh’s appointment as acting director, PIAC had been led for several years by the lawyer Anna Bossman, a former acting commissioner of Ghana’s Commission for Human Rights and Administrative Justice (CHRAJ) and, since 2017, Ghana’s ambassador to France.

Chain of accountability up to member states

The Office of the Auditor General is headed by Chukwuma Okonkwo, who was appointed as auditor general in 2015 during the final months of the presidency of Rwanda’s Kaberuka (2005-2015). If the allegations reported by the group of staff members turn out to be true, the wrongdoing involves a long series of senior officials.

The chain of accountability may reach as high as the AfDB’s member states. One of the approximations mentioned in the letter received by Jeune Afrique sheds plenty of light on the matter. Indeed, the document refers to an audit of the Human Resources Department by “Moussa Dosso, a former director for Côte d’Ivoire.”

However, according to our information, although the Ivorian director was disconcerted by the way the department was run, the audit request seems to have been made by the French and American directors, and never led to an actual audit, based on the claims of the group of staff members.

Fervent supporters

In a press statement dated 6 April, following the publication of an article in Le Monde, Adesina wrote: “The Ethics Committee of the Board of Directors is following its internal review systems and should be allowed to complete its review and work without interference from anyone or the media.”

The bank boss added, slightly losing his composure: “I am 100% confident that due process and transparency, based on facts and evidence, will indicate that these are all nothing more than spurious and unfounded allegations.”

Although Adesina did not wish to further respond to the accusations targeting his management of the bank, he has plenty of supporters within the institution. They are swift in particular to note the exaggerated nature of some of the criticisms directed at their leader, which in their view trivialise all of the accusations.

Overrepresentation of Nigerians

The group of staff members directs their criticism well beyond the AfDB’s suspicious contracts by also pointing blame at, more broadly, a bank with a highly deficient, if not inexistent, governance structure that is completely subservient to the president’s wishes.

One bone of contention concerns the overrepresentation of Nigerian officials. “Certainly, Nigeria is the AfDB’s largest shareholder, with a little over 9% of the capital, but could that explain why Mr Adesina hires one Nigerian after another to leadership positions at the AfDB?” wrote the group.

While recent departures and retirements, such as the announcement on 31 March of the retirement of Victor Oladokun, the Director of Communication and External Relations and right-hand man of Adesina during his first term – have reduced the share of managers from Nigeria, it’s clear that they are more visible than ever before.

As of mid-March, one of the AfDB’s seven vice presidents was Nigerian (Wale Shonibare, Acting Director of Energy), with four nationals or dual nationals of the country holding top-level positions. Besides Oladokun, they include: Vincent Nmehielle (Secretary General, who also has South African citizenship) Chinelo Anohu (Senior Director of the Africa Forum Investment) and Chukwuma Okonkwo (Auditor General).

Nationality breakdowns and detailed calculations

These breakdowns exasperate Adesina’s supporters, who point out that in 2015 (based on the latest figures available on staff members’ countries of origin) French nationals made up 63 of the AfDB’s headcount (5.2% of the total), meaning they are overrepresented in proportion to France’s share of the capital (3.7%). On that matter, Algeria (4.2% of the capital) has just nine nationals working at the bank (i.e., 0.7% of the staff) and yet that has not stirred up any controversy.

These detailed calculations are all the more irritating to those close to the leader from Abuja since, under the presidency of Kaberuka, the number of Rwandans working at the AfDB increased significantly, doubling between 2009 and 2015 to 28 staff members, i.e., 2.4 AfDB staff members per million Rwandans, compared with 0.276 for the continent’s most populous country.

The institution’s longest-standing staff members also recall the considerable number of East African officials, sometimes from the Rwandan diaspora, who were promoted during that same period. At the end of 2014, the top of the organisational chart featured Ugandan nationals such as Mohammad Ali Mubarak Kisubi (Auditor General), Joel Serunkuma Kibazo (Director of Communication) and Anne Namara Kabagambe (Chief of Staff and Director of Cabinet).

Even outside of the efforts made under Adesina’s presidency to “correct” the possible underrepresentation of his fellow Nigerian citizens, the group of staff members lists a host of decisions (appointments, negotiated departures, promotions, compensation packages, etc.) that appear to be acts of government, i.e., decisions taken which, although they may not violate the institution’s rules, push them to their extreme limits.

There is little doubt that the human resources policies implemented under Adesina shook up an institution attached to its traditions and a certain degree of comfort. In addition to the regionalisation process, carried out in a stormy climate, with 39% of staff now located in regional offices instead of at headquarters (versus 29% in 2016), management has increased its use of consultants (there were a total of 683 at the end of 2018) and outside recruitment (329).

“The AfDB is an institution that needs to recruit and promote its workers based on their skills and merit,” the authors of the letter wrote in a particularly revealing passage.

READ MORE: African Development Bank boss Akinwumi Adesina kicks off his 2020 re-election campaign

A Franco-American conspiracy?

None of the members of Adesina’s team refer to the bank’s latest annual report, which notes that in 2018 alone PIAC completed and closed “44 cases […] compared with the target of 30 cases” and organised “training and outreach activities in 13 countries involving 684 staff,” while “[e]thics advice was provided for 151 ethical dilemma cases handled in 2018.”

The most zealous advocates of the boss of the AfDB place the blame on plots devised by non-African players. This message has for several weeks now been conveyed to Ivorian authorities. Such advocates bring up the very undiplomatic reprimands expressed in mid-February by American David Malpass, President of the World Bank, and Bulgarian Kristalina Georgieva, the Managing Director of the IMF, on the topic of the AfDB’s lending policies.

For Adesina’s defenders, he is facing a conspiracy led by players from outside the continent who are determined to prevent his re-election. When the “concerned staff members” note in their letter that at “board meetings, only the US and French chairs dare to still stand up to him”, the defenders of the boss of the AfDB feel their theory is substantiated.

As the sole candidate, the PhD graduate in Agricultural Economics must obtain a double majority of the African and non-African shareholders in no more than five ballots. If he does not succeed, his candidacy will be invalid and he will not be able to run. In 2015, he was elected after six ballots. In 2005, Kaberuka went through 10 ballots before being elected, while it took Moroccan national Omar Kabbaj 14 ballots in 1995. They were all re-elected without much difficulty.

Adesina knows that he can in any case count on Abuja’s support, as the Nigerian government struggled to come to terms with the loss in 2005 of its candidate, Olabisi Ogunjobi. Backed by a majority of the bank’s African shareholders for a long time, he was never able to obtain the approval of the “non-regional” member countries, which favoured Kaberuka.

The election this year is technically scheduled to take place in May, but it seems to have already begun .

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