New Head of African Development Bank Wants a Continent He’s Proud to Call Home

Akinwumi Adesina won Thursday's election for the presidency of the African Development Bank. Now he's ready to improve infrastructure, create jobs, and encourage green growth on the continent.

The new president of the African Development Bank (AfDB) Akinwumi Adesina delivers a speech on May 28, 2015 in Abidjan following his election at the AfDB annual meetings. AFP PHOTO/ SIA KAMBOU        (Photo credit should read SIA KAMBOU/AFP/Getty Images)
The new president of the African Development Bank (AfDB) Akinwumi Adesina delivers a speech on May 28, 2015 in Abidjan following his election at the AfDB annual meetings. AFP PHOTO/ SIA KAMBOU (Photo credit should read SIA KAMBOU/AFP/Getty Images)

Akinwumi Adesina grew up in a one-room house in Nigeria, crammed in with his brothers, sleeping side-by-side on mats on the floor. His father and grandfather worked on local farms, earning no more than 10 cents a day. On Thursday, Adesina, now 55, was elected president of the African Development Bank, the continent’s most prominent financial institution.

In a conversation with Foreign Policy when he visited Washington last month, he said it was his childhood that shaped his interest in rural development and makes him uniquely poised to lead the bank, which has $33 billion in total assets.

But even if its finances are limited in comparison to the World Bank — that institution offered $65.6 billion in loans, grants, and investments in 2014 — the African institution can offer what Western ones cannot: moral authority on a continent increasingly hesitant to accept Western aid.

As J. Peter Pham of the Atlantic Council’s Africa Center put it, African leaders who are responsible for their own countries’ sluggish development will have a harder time dismissing the bank’s plans or projects to revitalize their economies than if it were a Western institution. “The bank has the ability and political authority to criticize,” Pham told FP. “With the World Bank, you get people calling it neo-colonialism, and the U.S. and Britain can be dismissed by those who choose not to be reformist.”

Adesina beat out several African finance ministers to secure the job, and his campaign for the post was based on his experience in rural development and infrastructure, most of which he gained while working in the private sector as an agriculture and rural development specialist. Adesina argued that his was a skill set needed to improve the continent’s roadways, railways, system of air travel, and energy production. That, in addition to improving educational opportunities and creating more jobs, is what Adesina thinks it will take to level Africa’s playing field.

It was his father’s ability to eventually get an education, Adesina told FP, that allowed him to send his sons to school. Without that break, Adesina would never have been able to attend university in Ife, a Nigerian city, and a doctoral program in agricultural economics at Purdue University in the United States.

Adesina returned to Africa after he received his doctorate and worked in more than a dozen countries there, focusing primarily on rural development and empowerment. He speaks fluent French and told FP that his knowledge of the continent has given him a breadth of ideas for what the bank needs to prioritize. Among them, he said, is linking small landlocked countries to coastal ports in order for Africans to share raw materials and create products rather than exporting the materials to Europe and the United States.

With many African countries seeing rapid economic growth in recent years, what appears to be a burgeoning development success story has been grouped under the slogan “Africa Rising.” But Adesina sees a downside to all that hype: a lack of inclusiveness. “There’s a lot of people that are actually left out of that growth process, and inequalities are rising between countries and also within countries,” he said.

That inequality is only worsened as migrants flock to urban areas, stretching the already dilapidated infrastructure of cities and increasing joblessness. Countries with fewer natural resources are floundering, and even countries with the capacity to extract minerals and boost their economies are suffering because corruption and poor infrastructure leaves the average citizen unable to benefit from his country’s resources. “A lot of cities are now bursting at the seams that need a lot of infrastructure but also need to create jobs for people and reduce insecurity,” he told FP.

Adesina said there is no developing Africa without empowering women. He previously served on the technical board of the Forum for African Women Educationalists, where he said his colleagues called him “he-she” because he was the only man there committed to improving women’s independence.

To ensure the success of the bank’s programs geared toward women, which include agricultural financing, Adesina plans to mandate annual scorecards to track the results of each program. “The greatest contribution you can make in an economy is empowering women,” he said. “I think gender is a fake thing; I think the issue is that women are underrepresented and [we should] call it what it is.”

Adesina, who was appointed by outgoing Nigerian president Goodluck Jonathan to serve as Nigeria’s minister of agriculture and rural development in 2011, will place Nigeria, Africa’s largest economy, at the bank’s helm for the first time in its history.

As Nigeria has ascended to become Africa’s largest economy, the selection of one of its civil servants as a the bank’s head may be seen by some as controversial. Smaller African countries have at times seen Nigeria as something of a bully, and the bank has traditionally offered such countries, including Ghana and Zambia, the opportunity to take on its presidency.

But Pham said the continent will benefit by having Nigeria — the bank’s largest shareholder — holding the reins of the institution, which needs thriving African economies to remain interested in its projects. Adesina said the bank’s priorities should be simple and straight-forward: increasing power generation, improving infrastructure, expanding the private sector, creating jobs, revitalizing the rural economy, and strengthening regional integration.

“The kind of Africa we need today is … an Africa where the young people want to stay, not a place they want to move away from,” Adesina said. “And an Africa that we can all be proud to call home.”

 Photo credit: SIA KAMBOU/AFP/Getty Images

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