Akinwumi Adesina: Face of a positive Nigeria, setting new agenda for African Development

It was a somber afternoon, early 2020, when the bad news wafted across the globe. The world battling its worst pandemic in 100 years was too weary to notice it.
African Development Bank (AfDB) President Akinwumi Adesina. REUTERS/Amit Dave
African Development Bank (AfDB) President Akinwumi Adesina. REUTERS/Amit Dave

It was a sombre afternoon, early 2020, when the bad news wafted across the globe. The world battling its worst pandemic in 100 years was too weary to notice it. But in Nigeria, the shitstorm of “corruption and abuse of office” at the top of the African Development Bank (AfDB) struck a tragic chord. And in an era where the appearance of impropriety is worse than the act itself, the accusation puts Nigerian leadership of the most prestigious African institution on its biggest trial ever.

At the Abidjan Headquarters of the AfDB, some whistle-blower staff of the institution had indicted their president, a Nigerian, Dr. Akinwumi Adesina, of awarding contracts to friends and relatives in four-year reign at the megabank. It was an icy dampener on over three decades of sterling spirit of the star child. True or false, the United States, which is the bank’s second biggest shareholder and one of its 27 non-regional members, ran with the story as if to give it credibility.
Perhaps on the streets of Lagos, Abuja and Daura, narratives of “Nigerianisation” or ethnic coloration of public offices are all too simplistic. In our flawed prebendalism, it is not unusual for officeholders to colonise vacancies with kith and kin. State governors with impunity appoint sons, in-laws, friends and even reward themselves with “juicy” portfolios. Judicial arm of government has lately not been spared of the oddly familiar opportunism spree. But on the international front, it is an ethical misconduct and a weighty one at that.

It impugns on integrity – of not having it or having it too little. Either way, it is a no-no in the highly revered diplomatic circle. And with the benefit of hindsight, the accused rarely returns smelling of roses. The United States and its Western allies are also known to pick fights carefully. So, on the balance of scale, Dr. Adesina was headed for a fatal collision that could as well end his stint at the continental bank. True to type, Western media literally nailed the coffin with headlines suggesting the end of an era for the “flamboyant” Nigerian Banker!
The symbolism of the accusation, if proven, portends more than a personal loss. Dr. Adesina is the first Nigerian to lead the 57-year-old institution. His tainted image will shut out other Nigerian prospects.  Fellow countryman gunning for the Director-General of the World Trade Organisation, Dr. Ngozi Nkonjo-Iweala, would have a more difficult campaign on the heels of Adesina’s episode. Also, an unhappy big spender readily hobbles the institution before its non-regional creditors, and that is hope betrayed for Africa and its quandaries. AfDB finances projects in agriculture, health, energy, education, transport and other development sectors by lending exclusively to African governments from its $208 billion capital base. But reputational doubt and damage to its leadership put the bank on notice – a blowout that derails its mission to help reduce poverty and improve living conditions of Africa that is right in the midst of a pandemic.

The situation at home could not have helped Adesina’s cause either. The most populous Black country was itself a leadership suspect. The tell-tale signs of maladministration showed a country bursting at its seams and falling apart. Multiple body blows of insecurity have kept her reeling. Wanton killings, kidnappings, banditry and daylight robberies continued to wreak havoc across the landscape.

President Muhammadu Buhari’s second-term victory at the polls did nothing to assuage perilous times even in the North. The economy was tilting and had everyone in dire straits. Inflation, unemployment and starvation – and everything AfDB fights against – were on overdrive in Nigeria. And when the pandemic scare summarily shuts both the rich and poor indoors, and in penury, ours was a country too weak to muscle defence for its star ambassador.
Adesina was swimming against the current, but he kept his polished posture with charismatic confidence enough to unsettle traducers. He denied all charges as “attempts by some to tarnish” his reputation. The Board of Governors’ Ethics Committee examined the 15-page petition of “impunity and bad governance” touted by the “Group of Concerned Staff Members of the AfDB”. It contained 16 breaches of Code of Ethics in all. Bottom-line: it alleged that the president appropriated the bank’s resources for self-promotion and personal gain while also paying out huge but undeserved severance packages to staff that resigned, and favoured his fellow Nigerians. But in a unanimous verdict that April, the board, having established no evidence to any of the accusations, gave the president a clean bill of health.

In a memo to the Ethics Committee, Adesina had in turn accused the petitioners of quisling and violating Section 6.7.2 of the Whistle Blowing Policy of the bank to breach confidentiality of the proceedings. Specifically, he accused the petitioners of disclosing their allegations beyond the committee “by acting in concert with others outside the AfDB system”. Apparently, there was more to the persecution than breach of rules. “The point about others acting in concert with the whistle-blowers is not speculation. Group of Concerned Staff Members… had been manipulated by a group of non-regional Executive Directors behind Mr. (Steven) Dowd, not for the good governance of the African Bank of Development, but to discredit the candidacy of the current President for his re-election,” Adesina pushed back.
Donald Trump’s United States only got incensed. It called the Ethics Committee’s report a whitewash and summarily rejected Adesina’s clearance! U.S. Treasury Building, just next to the White House in Washington, rebuffed the internal investigation in a letter signed by its then Secretary, Steve Mnuchin. “We fear that the wholesale dismissal of all allegations without appropriate investigation will tarnish the reputation of this institution as one that does not uphold high standards of ethics and governance,” Mnuchin wrote. “Therefore, the United States cannot support dismissing the allegations at this stage.”

At the AfDB, it was such periods that tried the soul of men. Many would have thrown in the towel to avert being thrown under the bus, but Adesina only got emboldened by persecution. “In spite of unprecedented attempts by some to tarnish my reputation and prejudice the bank’s governance procedures,” he stated in another self-defence, “I maintain my innocence with regard to trumped-up allegations that unjustly seek to impugn my honour and integrity. I am confident that fair, transparent and just processes that respect the rules, procedures and governance systems of the Bank, and rule of law, will ultimately prove that I have not violated the Code of Ethics of this extraordinary institution.”
Times were as hard for the Board that had just been accused of whitewashing its own investigation. The tension became palpable among shareholders. The Nordic alliance – Denmark, Sweden, Norway and Finland – pitched a tent with the United States and against African countries that rallied behind Adesina. Under pressure, the Board of Governors succumbed to an independent panel of investigators led by Ireland’s ex-President Mary Robinson, Gambian Chief Justice, Hassan Jallow, and former World Bank’s integrity vice-president, Leonard McCarthy. The panel didn’t stay too long in judgment either.

After fact-checking the Whistle-blowers’ allegations, Adesina’s defence, the process, findings and recommendations of the Ethics Committee, the independent panel states in conclusion: “The panel concurs with the committee in its findings in respect of all the allegations against the president and finds that they were properly considered and dismissed by the committee.” It shushed all persecutors —the finest moment for a Nigerian in history that late July! And when he stepped forward a month later, on August 27, Dr. Adesina was re-elected as the President of the African Development Bank Group with 100 per cent votes of both regional and non-regional shareholders — the first of such in the history of the Bank since 1964.
Dr. Adesina’s carefully curated career was coveted to crumble, but his “forbiddingly” high accomplishments and integrity turned out too solid for their match. By local standards, it was a miracle. By international rating, it was unprecedented! The superpowers made a turnaround to applaud his impeccable character, which shamed their base racism. Notably, the fight Dr. Adesina put up and won against the powers that be assured in no small measures that Dr. Iweala too would come out victorious when similar clouds of opposition gathered against her WTO pursuit. Yet, undeterred by the tribulation, Dr. Adesina has forged on in 2021, breaking barriers of development in Africa, earning his place as The Guardian Person of the Year 2021.
Writing in that classic in leadership, entitled: ‘Profiles in Courage’, President John F. Kennedy, reckoned that a common thread of courage, integrity and self-conviction runs through leaders of note, and shaped their magnificent mixture of triumphs and tragedies. “Most of them”, Kennedy wrote, “despite their differences, held much in common – the breath-taking talents of the orator, the brilliance of the scholar, the breadth of the man above party and section, and, above all, a deep-seated belief in themselves, their integrity and the rightness of their cause.” About 58 years after Kennedy’s assassination, his enduring quote could not have matched any personality better in 2021 than it qualifies Dr. Adesina. And it is not by happenstance.

To Akinwumi Ayodeji Adesina belongs an illustrious African pedigree and abiding ethos that his backbiters underrated, if they know of them. Indeed, the indigenous African worldview curated character traits that align with the philosophy of all-for-one and one-for-all. And to achieve the communal end-goal of collective well-being and happiness of all, the primordial way of life models individuals to be moral exemplars or an all-round good that is popularly known as an Omoluabi in Adesina’s Oyo (state) home, in South-west Nigeria. From the cradle, Adesina was moulded in good character (i.e. Iwa) – the most important possession in life that equals destiny and rivals religion. The ethical consciousness embeds core virtues of diligence, empathy, honesty, humility, patience, temperance, the pursuit of knowledge, wisdom and understanding, all of which guide human life from cradle to grave.
Indeed, they are life principles that define a person in the organic African context. To lack any of those virtues is to be reprobate and bring shame to the family and the community. Young Adesina was nurtured in the culture up till his days at the University of Ife, now Obafemi Awolowo University (OAU), where he bagged Bachelors in Agricultural Economics with First Class Honours in 1981 – the first in the history of the University. Suffice it to say that the citadel of learning is the centre of wisdom, art and science that rock-hewn its products to be world-beaters. “Adesina could not have been any different,” his teacher and former Vice-Chancellor of OAU, Prof. Wale Omole, remarked. “The gigantic infrastructure of the old Ife was designed to produce giants. Adesina is one of them. He shares a similar passion, focus and intellectually driven commitment to Africa like we saw of Prof. Adebayo Adedeji (pioneer Executive Director of United Nations Economic Commission for Africa, UNECA). Adesina is programmed for greatness,” Omole said.

Coming of age, Adesina was clear-headed to distil the limitation of the indigenous character ethics, especially with reference to modern relevance. The good character of a few in a multicultural, dynamic and demanding world no longer suffices for a developmental agenda. For an overhaul, the goodness of character must complement awareness of the technological age and pragmatism to lead changes through reforms. Both put together is a fine blend of native emotions and modern intelligence that grants indigenous morality its contemporary relevance.

So, while intelligence propels focus and pursuit of personal ambition, emotions conscientise aspirations and moderate gains to align with the passion for humanity and the common good. It is this integrated personal ethics that drives Adesina, as he ventured to Purdue University, Indiana, in the United States to earn Masters in 1985 and doctoral degree in Agriculture Economics three years later. At Purdue, he won the Outstanding Ph.D. Thesis for his research work. Though not born great, it was on that solid footing that Dr. Adesina stepped on the world stage to net greatness.
A Rare Commitment to African Development
One of the most revolutionary thinkers of African Decolonisation, Franz Fanon, once intoned in ‘The Wretched of The Earth’, “Each generation must, out of relative obscurity, discover its mission, fulfil it, or betray it in relative opacity.” The most phenomenal heeds to Fanon’s clarion call on self-defined mission for 21st Century Africa is at Adesina’s AfDB. And it is one subtle revolution that has unsettled the western superpowers and earned the president that infamous reprisal.

In a manner unheard of at the development bank, Adesina had in about six years, changed the outlook of the institution; from dependency on bilateral lenders, to multilateral vista of opportunities for Africa. Under his watch, AfDB became more assertive, seeking to diversify its revenue and resource base, and supporting African governments to plug into multiple sources of funding, including Chinese loans.
On the flip side, it creates a rivalry that eases Western dominance and turns the table on the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF). Former U.S. government official and current World Bank president, David Malpass, in February 2020, criticised the AfDB and other multilateral development banks, saying they have “a tendency to lend too quickly”, and crowding the continent’s growing debt burden – a position AfDB has countered. The increased lending role and leverage that Western-based development finance institutions (DFIs) are seeking, conflict with the supposed pro-China stance of Adesina. But the president is known to take no prisoners. Africa has continued to warm up to Chinese investment and partnerships.

It featured banks such as the Export-Import Bank of China, China Development Bank, and Agricultural Bank of China, alongside other initiatives such as Chinese-financed special agro-industrial processing zones across Africa. It robbed off on multiple fronts with a smorgasbord of advantage that further ruffled feathers.

Most significant of the paradigm shift was the bold strategy to transform the lives of Africans through the High 5s strategy. First, to light-up and power Africa. Second, to feed the people. Third, to integrate the continent; fourth, to industrialise Africa. And lastly, to improve the quality of life of Africans. The High 5s have already impacted the lives of 335 million Africans – more than the populations of Nigeria and South Africa put-together.

Unflustered by Western discontents, Adesina launched the Africa Investment Forum (AIF) in 2018 to attract global capital to support Africa’s accelerated development. The unique investment forum has become the premier investment market place for Africa, and it attracted $38.1 billion of investment in 2018, and $40 billion in 2019. In October that year, the president further led the Bank to achieve its highest capital increase since the Bank’s establishment in 1964, when shareholders raised the general capital of the Bank by 125 per cent. This increased the Bank’s capital by $115 billion, from $93 billion to $208 billion, a historic achievement for Africa. It could only draw the ire of enemies of change.

Ambassador Bolaji Akinyemi, the world-renowned professor of International Relations with over five decades of experience on his side, has rarely been impressed with Africans holding offices at international scenes. More often, he said, they end up with a lukewarm attitude to Africa in the bid to get along and curry favours of their principals “as if they have no (African) personality of their own”.

But the persona of Adesina “a brilliant international public servant” belongs to a different class. “Yes, he is heading an African organisation,” Akinyemi said, “however; he is heading one that has the world powers as members and shareholders. And given what he went through with the Americans, I know a lot of people that said ‘let him just take it easy in the second-term’. ‘Let him not ruffle feathers any more’. But the fact that the man continues to fire on all blanks, I give him that credit of being faithful to where he came from. He is an African personality and he doesn’t hide it. He is making a difference, and that is the important thing. He is not just all talk; he is working the talk,” Akinyemi said.
Amid the crippling anxiety of the pandemic, the Bank has led the intervention to rapidly protect Africa in the immediate aftermath of the COVID-19 by launching a $10 billion crisis response facility to support African countries. The Bank also launched a $3 billion Fight-COVID-19 social bond on the global capital markets, the largest ever U.S. dollar denominated social bond in world history.
Consistent with the grants, Dr. Adesina has also being the led advocate of vaccine justice for Africa in 2021. He did not mince words when he recently told world leaders that “as long as Africans remain unvaccinated, the world will go right back to square one”. As at then, only 14.6 million vaccines had been delivered to Africa, covering only one per cent of its population. “We are way off the mark in terms of getting to 60 per cent of herd immunity,” Dr. Adesina said, “and sadly, I do not see that happening for another year or two at this rate— not unless things change. We need global solidarity and vaccine justice for Africa. We, therefore, need to improve Africa’s access to vaccines. COVAX is doing a great job but still, we need more. We need them in adequate quantity. We need them quickly and we need them at an affordable price. Africa needs to develop its pharmaceutical industry and begin manufacturing. The African Development Bank is going to support African countries to do this,” he pledged.

On December 14, 2021, the Bank awarded a $210 million loan to impact the lives of millions of people in Nigeria. The loan will co-finance Phase 1 of the Nigeria Special Agro-Industrial Processing Zone Programme. AfDB financing for this programme represents one of the Bank’s most ambitious operations in terms of scale and scope to date. It is made up of an AfDB loan of $160 million and an Africa Growing Together Fund loan of $50 million. Phase 1 of the project will target seven Nigerian states and the Federal Capital Territory.

Contrary to the plot of propagandists, the Bank’s credibility has actually ballooned under Adesina’s watch. This year, ‘Publish What You Fund’, a global campaign for aid and development transparency outfit, ranked the Bank as ‘the fourth most transparent institution in the world’. Global Finance, the world-renowned financial magazine, rated the Bank as ‘the Best Multilateral Financial Institution in the world for 2021’ .

A Gadfly for Sluggish Horses
Fondly called “Akin”, meaning “the courageous one” in indigenous language, Dr. Adesina has a trademark of daring reforms. As the Minister of Agriculture in Nigeria from 2011-2015, Dr. Adesina turned the agriculture sector of Nigeria around within four years. The feat attracted the then in-coming President Muhammad Buhari to delegate a former Vice President to lobby for his confirmation in 2015, having been nominated by out-going President Goodluck Jonathan.
The majesty of public office warrants its holders to be moral bully pulpits. Besides life of laurels and incentivising African countries to thaw the misery index, Dr. Adesina has consistently speaks truth to power in Africa. At the African Economic Outlook 2021, he rallied African governments behind establishing a collective financial stabilisation mechanism for debt restructuring plan.

The home-grown mechanism, aimed at reducing and renegotiating its delinquent debts, will also avoid the spill-over effects that come from global pandemics or any external shocks, “allowing Africa to deal with the cause of the illness and not always the symptoms”. Many African countries are indeed indebted to multilateral agencies and bilateral lenders as a result of poor revenue. In a recent data, the Debt Management Office (DMO) said Nigeria expended $243 million on debt servicing between January and December 2020. “We must start by making sure that we carry out the macroeconomic policy reforms and the fiscal policy reforms that we need to get done. Africa is not looking for a free pass. We are just looking for an equitable way in which Africa’s fiscal space gets dealt with,” Adesina said.
Most notably, he is also at home with the wisdom of late Dr. Nelson Mandela, in saying: “The world will not respect Africa until Nigeria earns that respect. The black people of the world need Nigeria to be great as a source of pride and confidence.” But achieving sustainable developmental agenda is only as possible as the quality of leadership and social policies that drive the ideas in Nigeria. Hence, the world-renowned development economist in Dr. Adesina has never been shy to demand credible leadership, even at the risk of barefaced criticism of the government. Adesina, who was guest speaker at the Mid-Term Ministerial Performance Review Retreat, Abuja, recently, said Nigeria has a vulnerable economy that warrants a decisive review of its debt and structural challenges.

Indeed, the spread of democratisation in Africa, combined with increased digitisation and evolving demographics, has generated greater opportunities for private sector growth. At the same time, increased conflict and violence, pervasive corruption, a lack of good governance and rule of law, weak infrastructure development, and health challenges (such as chronic malnutrition and pandemic outbreaks) threaten to derail the progress to date. Going forward, the AfDB, under Adesina, will need to think about how it can leverage its assets and collaborate more closely with other development organisations operating in the region.

The challenges facing the continent require a concerted effort and coordination by country governments, the private sector, and development partners to utilise existing tools, develop new approaches, and create lasting partnerships that will build prosperity for the future. Beyond sterling achievements as an individual and as a bank, Adesina and the AfDB need to work with other stakeholders and not in silos to give Africa the future it deserves.
A Footnote On Good Leadership
Indeed, for Dr. Adesina, the fate of a nation, like an institution, rests squarely on the shoulders of the leadership at its disposal. Leadership, he reckoned, is a higher call to service that is held in trust for God, condemned to be transparent and simple enough to deserve peoples’ trust. Adesina laid a marker recently: “I tried to assess myself not in terms of what people think, but in terms of what God thinks, for all power comes from God, and so all accountability for what you do in power is to the one that put you there. Leaders are required and expected to do the right things. They must exercise power in a responsible manner. They are instruments to bring to pass the plans and purposes of God for people. A leader must be driven by accountability to God.”

He added that a leader’s reputational equity rises or falls on the basis of results, trust and integrity. Consequently, leaders must mean what they say and say what they mean, as well as deliver on their promises. “When the impact of your output is tangibly felt, trust is the end result. Lifestyle audits are needed for leaders. Leaders must live within their means, and their means must be honest means. When citizens see their leaders living transparently, being sensitive, not lavish in lifestyle but delivering good governance, they will trust governments. But when people feel that their resources are mismanaged or being used for opulence, widening the gap between the leaders and those they are leading, it builds distrust and despondency, which then permeates the fabric of society.”
American Economist, Prof. Bob Reich, in ‘The Work of Nations’, posited that a nation has two main important resources within its borders that must be harnessed to leapfrog development – its workforce and the public infrastructure. Apparently, in agreement with Reich, Adesina enjoined African leaders to earn the confidence of their army of youths, train and motivate them to work out the logic of national development. He asserted that the future of Nigeria rests squarely on what it does with its youth population. “For Nigeria to be all it can be, the youth of Nigeria must be all they can be.” And to build capacity for today and future jobs, there must be a policy shift from “youth empowerment” to “youth investment”.

Most germane for contemporary Africa is the trust deficit. “Forgotten, undervalued and underused, a lot of youth today have a high level of distrust for governments. That we must change. We must prioritise the youth because what we do with and to our youth will determine our future. We hold our positions in trust for the present and future generations,” Adesina said.

*Dr Oyebade is The Guardian Deputy Editorial Page Editor, and Dr Adekoya is The Guardian Business Editor.

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