In 2015, when Akinwumi Adesina ran for the presidency of the African Development Bank, AfDB, I wrote a piece in my Businessday column entitled "AfDB presidency: Adesina, best candidate for the job" (BusinessDay, May 4, 2015). Apart from the national prestige in a Nigerian heading an international economic institution, I believed Adesina was the best of the eight candidates for the AfDB presidency. So, his election as the eighth president of the AfDB in April 2015, was well-deserved.
Sadly, Adesina is now in the eye of the storm. In January, anonymous whistle-blowers called "Group of Concerned Staff Members", brought a 20-point allegation of corruption against him. Adesina strongly denied the allegations and rebutted them in a 260-page document. The bank's ethics committee investigated and exonerated him. But the US poured cold water on their findings and demanded an independent probe.
This is unprecedented in the bank's 56-year history. But also unparalleled is the controversy surrounding Adesina's presidency. His immediate predecessor, Donald Kaberuka, a Rwandan, served two terms of 10 years, from 2005 to 2015, without any public controversy.
Adesina, who is running for a second term, is the sole candidate in the election scheduled for August. But the US said further investigation was necessary "to ensure that he has broad support, trust and clear shareholder mandate", prompting concerns that the US might want to thwart Adesina's second term chances! So, why is Adesina beleaguered? Well, there's more to it than meets the eye.
We must start from 2015. Although Adesina won the election, it wasn't a landslide. He secured about 60 per cent of the votes. He was not the favoured candidate of most of the non-regional member countries of the AfDB, which control 40 per cent of the bank's shares. The US, which is the largest non-regional shareholder, with 6.5 per cent, and second largest, overall, after Nigeria, which has 9.1 percent, did not back his candidacy!
The main fears of those who didn't support Adesina for the AfDB presidency in 2015 were that a Nigerian president would unduly favour Nigerians with appointments and contract awards and lend too easily to Nigeria. Interestingly, these two issues - favouritisms towards Nigeria and Nigerians - are at the heart of Adesina's current travails.
Of course, as the US's first representative to the AfDB, Harold E Doley Jr, said in his recent intervention: "Akinwumi Adesina is a global player of impeccable character". Yet, there are issues about personality and management style. As the saying goes, "keep your friends close and your enemies closer". Given some people's concerns about his candidacy in 2015, Adesina should have done more to manage relationships better with the US and staff of the bank since he assumed office. He clearly didn't pay sufficient attention to the sensitivities of the US, the bank's second largest shareholder.
Several years ago, I had lunch in London with the Regional Director (Europe) of the AfDB, Nfor Susungi, a Cameroonian, and asked him about the influence exerted by the bank's non-regional members. He replied: "It is true, but it's also to be expected", adding that "one would not normally expect that they should be shareholders without being able to exercise influence"! Indeed!
In his book Beckoned to Serve, former President Shehu Shagari said that in 1981 he wanted to veto a proposal to allow non-Africans to have equity in the AfDB but changed his mind because other African countries "were not able or willing to pay their annual contributions", adding: "Unfortunately, Nigeria could not single-handedly rescue the bank from its acute financial dilemma." So, think of it: African countries can't fund the AfDB themselves and yet cry "colonialism" when the non-regional members who own 40 per cent of the bank raise concerns about how its funds are used.
The US has historically been tough on external lending and thinks the AfDB lends too easily. David Malpass, the World Bank president, made this point in February when he said that the AfDB "is pushing large amounts of money into Nigeria, South Africa and others", adding that the bank "has a tendency to lend too quickly".
Of course, it's true that the US frowns at the AfDB pouring the bank's money into Nigeria's agricultural sector because Nigeria bans US agricultural imports. That accords with President Trump's transactional worldview. But the general concern is that the AfDB is behaving like China, lending heavily to Africa without demanding reforms, and worsening the continent's debt problems. I share that sentiment!
Adesina said "the idea that other people are acting in concert with the whistle-blowers is not pure speculation", implying that the US was acting in cahoots with the whistle-blowers. Well, it's likely that the US's concerns about AfDB's governance fuelled its hawkish position on the allegations. But instead of handling the matter with tact, Adesina effectively wrapped himself in the Nigerian and African flags, turning the issue into a Nigerian/African-US face off.
Unfortunately, African leaders, including former President Olusegun Obasanjo, who should have engaged in silent diplomacy, went public with grandstanding statements, criticising the US. President Buhari's chief spokesman, Femi Adesina, wrote a piece referring to "an onslaught led by America" and bragged that the finance minister, Zainab Ahmed, wrote a "decisive letter", rejecting America's demand for an independent review.
But how decisive? The bank bowed to US pressure and, unprecedentedly, agreed to an independent probe. The truth is that it was not just the US that called for an independent review, the UK, as well as the eurozone and Nordic countries, also called for an independent investigation, which made the opposition of African countries to an external review seem like special pleading. Of course, if, as I hope, the independent review exonerates Adesina, that will massively strengthen his position and reputation.
Yet, here's the broader lesson: we live in a realist world of realpolitik. Unless Nigeria, nay Africa can manage its own affairs and become a global power, its external influence would remain miniscule!