Nigeria’s Adesina wins battle for AfDB presidency

Nigeria’s Akinwumi Adesina was Thursday elected new president of the African Development Bank (AfDB) in a thrilling vote that saw major heavyweights from North Africa and southern Africa stripped away early in the opening rounds.

The dapper bow-tie wearing Agriculture and Rural Development minister will be a popular choice with the Africanist policy community, but will also provide a major boost for Nigeria’s flagging geopolitical ambitions, with a new president set to be sworn-in on May 29.

He has widely heralded innovations in hugely improving his country’s often-precarious food security position, but was not as steeped in finance as some of his rivals, the majority of who were all serving or former finance ministers. 

He however had arguably the most impressive academic credentials.

The vote
Three candidates had been left in the nerve-wracking race to head the 50-year-old bank. 

Adesina, Cape Verde’s Cristina Duarte and Kordje Bedoumra of Chad were the only contestants still standing by early evening on Thursday, as AfDB governors sought a successor to Donald Kaberuka, who will have served the maximum two terms.

A winning candidate needs at least 50.01% of both the regional and non-regional votes. The latter are members who are not from Africa and wield 40% of the vote. They include the US, China, Japan and a raft of European countries and were brought in in 1982 to help boost the capital base of the bank, which was at the time starved of cash. 

Nigeria has the highest voting power of the bank’s members, ahead of the United States.

Sierra Leone’s Foreign Affairs minister Samura Kamara, who as finance minister led his country’s reconstruction effort, was the first to fall in the opening round, though few eyebrows would have been raised at his early exit, given his region had propped up three other stronger candidates.

But the identity of the next candidate to be eliminated was more surprising, as Ethiopia’s Sufian Ahmed tumbled out. His country’s finance and economic development minister, he had been one of the heavy-hitters expected to at least make the final rounds of voting.

Mali’s Birama Side lasted longer than forecast by analysts, becoming the third candidate to be knocked out. 

Tunisia’s Jaloul Ayed was next, as North Africa lost a chance to head the bank for a third time. 

The bank’s sixth president, Omar Kabbaj, is credited with instituting reforms that set the bank on its current path, while Kaberuka cemented its place as the continent’s premier development financier. 

Zimbabwe’s Thomas Sakala, a former AfDB insider, tumbled out next. He had come in on the backing of southern Africa, but his bid run into headwinds when it was revealed that he had been a benefit of “primaries” which is perceived to be against bank rules.

Good Nigerian spell
Nigerians might be forgiven for thinking the country is enjoying a brilliant spell, after president-elect Muhammadu Buhari became one of only a handful of African opposition leaders to defeat an incumbent comprehensively, but perhaps one of the proudest moments was the grace with which Goodluck Jonathan accepted defeat.

Nigeria’s outgoing Finance minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala immediately tweeted’ “Great news! Nigeria’s Akin Adesina has won the AfDB presidency after our strong campaign! Great campaign! Great candidate!”

Beyond Adesina’s victory, his triumph signalling a significant change in continental power politics. Until recently, it was the custom that the big and richer nations kept the smaller countries happy by ceding the leadership of continental bodies to them.

The first major break from that came in 2012 when Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma was elected chairperson of the African Union Commission. South Africa is the richest country on the continent, and Nigeria its largest economy and most populous nation.

It might seem, like with the World Bank and IMF, the big boys and girls in Africa, have also finally taken over the stage by combining back-office clout with executive power.

All attention now shifts to Adesina. In early March he gave an insight into his likely agenda, telling news agency AFP in late March that he wanted to “finish off the white elephants”, in a reference to useless luxury projects that are often financed using international aid and built by foreign businessmen, and which reek of corruption.

He called for “intelligent infrastructure that is more productive, more competitive”. He also urged more cooperation across borders, pitching ideas such as an “African Google”, a transnational electricity market, and a regional stock exchange. The AfDB might just have got its first digital president.

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