Profile: Why Akinwunmi Adesina is the real deal

“The future beckons us for a more developed Africa and a much stronger and resilient African Development Bank Group. We will build on the strong foundations of success in the past five years, while further strengthening the institution, for greater effectiveness and impacts.”

Two months ago, Akinwunmi Adesina was facing what is no doubt the biggest challenge of his professional life. On track to be elected for a second five-year tenure as president of the African Development Bank (AfDB) group, his candidacy-and career was nearly derailed by scandal.

In April, anonymous employees of the bank under the umbrella of a whistleblower group submitted a 15-page report to governors of the bank. The report contained in detail, many allegations including but not limited to embezzlement, unethical conduct, private gain, preferential hiring of fellow Nigerians in senior appointments, and promotion of persons suspected of fraud. Adesina responded to each single accusation, dismissing them as “spurious and unfounded.” The bank’s ethics committee following an internal investigation, had earlier exonerated Adesina, reporting that the complaints “rested on no objective, solid facts.”

Not satisfied with the outcome of the committee, the whistleblowers pressed the governors of the bank for an independent probe. In a move that is widely seen as a political one, ostensibly designed to scuttle Adesina’s second term chances, Steve Mnuchin, the United States of America Treasury Secretary called for an independent evaluation. Mnuchin’s position, effectively that of the United States’, the bank’s second largest shareholder is a tad suspicious in that it appears to disregard laid down channels of addressing management concerns at the bank. There have thus been concerns about the independence of the board- and eventually of the bank- being undermined in pursuit of agendas that may not have the continent at the center.

These concerns are all the more pressing considering that Adesina’s five-year leadership of the regional development bank has largely been regarded by those who should know as a successful one. Former president Olusegun Obasanjo, somewhat of a mentor to Adesina observed of the Bank’s COVID-19 response, “As Africa faces COVID-19, Dr Adesina again took bold measures to ensure the bank can respond proactively to support African countries and got its board of directors to approve a $10 billion crisis response facility to support African countries,” he said.

When it comes to serving the needs of the continent, Adesina’s AfDB has been at the centre of major development gains and the most important economic decisions of the last half decade. His work centers the principles of free markets and good governance while at the same time pushing for increased agency for African countries to meet local challenges.

Only recently, the AfDB rose up to the novel COVID-19 challenge by floating a financial framework to support Africa’s fight against the pandemic. The Bank’s $3 billion “Fight COVID-19 Social Bond” was an instant hit on the international capital market. With an interest rate of 0.75%, the effort met the target within a few hours of its launch. This bond, now listed on the London Stock Exchange, is the largest US Dollar denominated social bond in history.

The high fives

No stranger to reform, Akinwunmi Adesina, 60, a development economist and agricultural development expert rode triumphantly to the headship of the AfDB in 2015 after four highly impactful years in Nigeria as the federal minister of agriculture and rural development. In this position, Adesina oversaw bold reforms that boosted national food production by an additional 21 million metric tons over four years attracting about $5.6 billion in private-sector investments.

Adesina’s agricultural revolution introduced the “E-Wallet System” a mechanism that provided agricultural inputs and subsidised electronic vouchers for farmers in lieu of cash to purchase fertilizer and seed varieties directly from agro-dealers. This E-Wallet System effectively ended 40 years of corruption in the government-controlled fertilizer distribution system. Adesina’s ultimately successful campaign for AfDB president was big on both the diplomatic gloss as well as the policy achievements.

At the AfDB, Adesina hit the ground running, outlining the High 5s, a five-point strategy which he designed to provide transformational development for Africa over a ten-year period. The focus of these would be in five critical areas: agriculture, electricity, industrialization, integration and improved livelihood. An independent analysis carried out by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) observed that a full implementation of Adesina’s High 5s would guarantee that Africa meets 90 percent of its SDG targets and 90 percent of the Agenda 2063 of the African Union.

How has he done so far?

The AfDB has never been more influential to the present and future of the continent as Adesina has firmly positioned it as the primary, inescapable actor driving development financing in Africa. Adesina has led the AfDB’s mission to support several governments as they achieve significant milestones.

According to the bank’s figures, its operations have led directly and indirectly to 18 million people connecting to electricity. 60 million people have benefitted from improved access to clean water and sanitation and 101 million people have been able to access better transportation services.

Through its NEPAD infrastructure project preparation facility, the AfDB has helped mobilize financing for about $8.5 billion of infrastructure projects. The bank’s Sustainable Energy Fund for Africa (SEFA) has been able to support investments in excess of $800m in renewable energy.  Adesina led the effort to attract global investments into Africa with the inaugural Africa Investment Forum mobilizing $78.8 billion in investment interests between 2018 and 2019.

It is one thing to reel out figures but Adesina has been able to show the working through several programs and initiatives set up to close the infrastructure gap across the continent. All this ambitious development work was strengthened in 2019 by the biggest capital increase in the bank’s 55-year history, a giant leap from $93 billion to $208 billion.

On the operations side, Adesina moved to decentralise the AfDB processes, Adesina opened five regional development offices in Tunis, Nairobi, Abidjan, Pretoria and Yaounde each headed by a director general to service the North, East, West, South and Central regions of the continent respectively. The AfDB, for four years in a row, received an AAA rating from all the major global rating agencies, a confirmation that the Bank has been considered, year-on-year, to possess excellent liquidity, sound financial and risk management, not to mention strong shareholder support.

Global leader

The rest of the world has been watching Adesina too.

In 2017, Adesina was awarded the World Food Prize, recognized widely as the ‘Nobel Prize’ for Food and Agriculture in Des Moines, Iowa. Adesina pledged the entire $250,000 cash prize to supporting young people in food and agriculture. This gave rise to the World Hunger Fighters Foundation, operating in partnership with the World Food Prize Foundation. Adesina also pledged his $500,000USD Sunhak Peace Prize to the same cause. Last year, 10 outstanding young Africans were unveiled as the inaugural Borlaug-Adesina Foundation Fellowship recipients.

A hit in the media circuit, Adesina was named African of the Year by Forbes Africa magazine, the Africa Leadership Newspaper Group and the All Africa Business Leaders Awards. Because the reward for hard work is more work, the United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres appointed Adesina as one of 23 global leaders to help end hunger and malnutrition. He also serves globally as one of the Commissioners for the Global Climate Commission, co-Chaired by Bill Gates and former UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon, to tackle global climate change.

In a just world, despite rumblings on his management style, Adesina would ideally be a shoo in for a second term in office. And for a while, with no contender stepping forward, it seemed like he was.

Following a physical meeting, Nigerian president Muhammadu Buhari has endorsed Adesina, committing to drumming up support among his colleagues. Former president Olusegun Obasanjo has been doing the rounds among former African heads of state. The rules are the rules and the AfDB appears to have been guided by the books so far while handling the Adesina drama.

V for Victory

On the 27th of August, Adesina was re-elected for another five-year term. The election took place on the final day of the 2020 Annual Meetings of the AfDB Group, held virtually for the first time in the bank’s history.

This vindication of Adesina’s past work came on the heels of a tumultuous three months that had divided shareholders of the bank even though they had appeared to put up a united front to endorse his election. A statement from the bank read, “As shareholders, we will give him all the necessary support to carry forward and implement his compelling vision for the bank.” Former World Bank Treasurer and Vice-President, Arunma Oteh noted, “The shareholders of AfDB could not have selected a more appropriate person to support Africa to ‘build forward together’ post-Covid-19. He is not only a passionate and visionary leader but also has the execution capacity and empathy to help Africa unleash its great potential.”

Adesina had survived both an internal investigation and an external review headed by former Irish President Mary Robinson. Both processes independently cleared him. Adesina’s statement, post-election decidedly looks to the future- for the bank as well as the continent. In his words, “The future beckons us for a more developed Africa and a much stronger and resilient African Development Bank Group. We will build on the strong foundations of success in the past five years, while further strengthening the institution, for greater effectiveness and impacts.”

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