Reasons for Cheer in Election of African Development Bank’s New President

On Thursday, Nigeria’s Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development, Akinwumi Adesina, was elected the new President of the African Development Bank (AfDB) during the fiftieth annual meeting of the multilateral financial institution in Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire. The choice of the dapper, bow tie-sporting 55-year-old economist is not only a personal victory of the man, but also a boost for his country and, most importantly, a potentially momentous pivot for Africa.

To win the five-year term at the head of the AfDB, a candidate is required to win a majority of the total voting power of all the members of the bank (54 African countries plus 26 non-African countries), voting power being determined by contributions to the bank’s $50 billion authorized capital. Nigeria has the largest share in the AfDB, with 9.256 percent of the voting power, followed by the United States (6.551 percent), Japan (5.479 percent), South Africa (4.883 percent), Algeria (4.219 percent), and Germany (4.115 percent). (Incidentally, the United States has been without a permanent representative at the AfDB since Walter Jones ended his tour of duty in late 2013; President Barack Obama’s nomination of Marcia Denise Occomy in March 2014 expired without a vote before the end of the 113th Congress and the Senate has yet to take up her renomination.) In addition to a majority of the total votes, the successful candidate must also secure a majority of the voting power within the subset of the African countries as well. Adesina ultimately won some 60 percent of the votes, easily besting the other seven candidates vying for the post.

The election is the culmination of an extraordinary journey for the son and grandson of farm laborers, who worked on other people’s property for 10 cents a day. Adesina once recounted to me the extremely modest circumstances in which he and his four siblings grew up, living in a single room and sleeping on mats in homes in rural Nigeria without running water or electricity. While his own father did not learn to read or write until he was in his teens, young Adesina was a diligent student and was able to go to the University of Ife (now Obafemi Awolowo University), where he earned his bachelor’s degree before going on to receive a doctorate in agricultural economics from Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana.

While all sorts of academic and other professional paths were then open to him—including some that would have kept him on this side of the Atlantic—he told me he never forgot his father’s admonition: “If you ever become someone important, take the opportunity to help the poor.” So he returned to Africa and spent most of his professional career working in development across the continent with a number of nongovernmental organizations, including the Rockefeller Foundation and the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA).

In 2010, he was appointed Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development of his native Nigeria by President Goodluck Jonathan. During his tenure as minister, among other initiatives, he was best known for launching the Growth Enhancement Support Scheme (GESS), an innovative and effective electronic wallet system for Nigeria’s farmers designed to increase access to and affordability of agricultural inputs like fertilizer, as well as for encouraging farmers to diversify into productive new crops. In 2010, Adesina was appointed by United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon as one of seventeen world leaders to galvanize support for the UN Millennium Development Goals, and, in 2013, he was selected as Forbes Africa Person of the Year for his bold reforms of Nigeria’s agriculture sector.

Adesina’s election is also another fillip for Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country and its biggest economy, coming exactly two months from the historic presidential election that saw the defeat of an incumbent president by a challenger for the first time ever, sending a powerful signal about democracy across the continent. Moreover, the vote for the AfDB’s new chief took place literally on the eve of Friday’s peaceful handover of power from incumbent Nigerian President Jonathan to President-elect Muhammadu Buhari. Adesina, in fact, benefited from cooperation between two Nigerian leaders: while he served in the outgoing administration, the incoming head of state publicly gave a ringing endorsement of his candidacy for the bank presidency and called on other African leaders to support it. Undoubtedly the choice of Adesina to lead the biggest financier of African infrastructure will be a source of tremendous pride for a newly confident Nigeria that has long yearned for a greater role in the diplomatic and economic councils of the continent.

Adesina will take over the helm of the AfDB on September 1 from one-time Rwandan Finance Minister Donald Kaberuka, who has served the maximum two terms. Under Kaberuka’s able stewardship, the bank’s finances were finally put in order, its capital replenished, and the institution as a whole shifted to prioritize major infrastructure projects to the tune of more than $28 billion over the last ten years, more than double what it had done in the preceding four decades. At one point after the global financial crisis, AfDB even surpassed the World Bank as Africa’s biggest lender. With the expansion of its portfolio came greater influence for the bank, leverage that Kaberuka was not shy about using to prod governments to improve governance and lower barriers to doing business across the continent’s often arbitrary borders. In his valedictory speech on Monday, the outgoing AfDB chief reminded his audience: “It is not money that delivers development: It is policies that bring good return to that investment, in addition to delivery capacity.”

While the AfDB’s annual report, released during this week’s meeting, forecasts economic growth on the continent overall to be 4.5 percent this year and rising to 5 percent in 2016—thus making Africa the world’s second-fastest growing region after Asia—it also acknowledged that “this rapid growth has not been translated into appreciable reductions in poverty and inequality.” In fact, the need to make inclusive growth a priority was one of the principal arguments advanced in a briefing Adesina gave at the Atlantic Council less than three weeks ago. Moreover, in his vision statement for the African Development Bank, the Nigerian minister sounded several notes of caution against resting on any laurels just because of the dynamic run of the last few years:

The strong economic performance of the continent has been due largely to favorable terms of trade, higher commodity prices and strong global demand for natural resources, which boosted Africa’s extractive industries…

Significant challenges remain to put African economies on stronger and sustainable growth paths and to address widening economic and social inequalities. In countries where economic growth performance is still heavily reliant on extractive sectors, commodity price volatility, such as the recent decline in oil prices, makes the economies more vulnerable to external shocks, with significant implications for fiscal and macroeconomic stability. While African countries have huge potentials in the agricultural sector to diversify their economies, the sector remains largely untapped, with low productivity and countries depend largely on the export of primary produce with limited value addition. In many countries, from North to South, East to West of the continent, the challenge is to make economic growth more inclusive and more effective at reducing poverty.

He then laid out a strategy to drive inclusive growth by prioritizing integrated smart infrastructure to increase productivity and competitiveness, expanding the private sector for industrialization and wealth creation, creating jobs for youth and women, reviving rural economies, and strengthening regional integration. The tasks which the newly elected President of the African Development Bank has set for himself and his institution will not, by any means, be easily accomplished, but if the continent’s development is to be sustainable, it must be inclusive. Towards that common objective, Africa’s friends can take heart in the optimism Adesina expressed in his response on Twitter to my congratulations: “I truly believe that Africa’s best days are ahead.”

J. Peter Pham is Director of the Atlantic Council’s Africa Center. Follow the Africa Center on Twitter at @ACAfricaCenter.

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Image: From left to right: Ambassador to the United States of the Federal Republic of Nigeria H.E. Adebowale Ibidapo Adefuye, Nigerian Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development H.E. Akinwumi Adesina, and Africa Center Director J. Peter Pham.