Crisis at the top of AfDB. End of a thriller series?

By Alassane Ndiaye*.

 

« The turn of events since the warning shot fired by the US Secretary of the Treasury with his letter addressed to the Chairwoman of the Board of Governors of the African Development Bank on May 22nd is worthy of a thriller series, drawing comments and prognosis from all over, and all equally divergent over the course of the various episodes. Although the series began airing in January 2020 with a staff complaint filed with the AfDB’s Office of Integrity, followed by the episode in which the same group, seemingly unsuccessful the first time, escalated then by means of whistleblowers acting carefully under the status of anonymity, it is only during the episode of the now famous letter of the US Secretary of the Treasury that the series scores its highest audience rating.

It is also from that episode that I personally took the measure of the depth of the situation. As a young African entrepreneur (young for the older generation but old for the younger generation : ) I share my views about this crisis aroused with passion from within the institution at stake as well as outside and precisely among my peers.

First of all, it is important to clarify that this is not about being for or against good governance, ethics, nepotism, corruption, etc.  Africa and its institutions deserve nothing less than best practice on all these accounts. Rather, it is a matter of agreeing on the limits of the established set of organizational control systems as it may be worth reminding that President Adesina was cleared out of a due process in compliance with the institution’s own prescribed procedures, course of actions and remedies. Nevertheless, the –anonymous- group of staff, not satisfied, demanded and obtained through the U.S. Secretary of the Treasury to go beyond the limits of an otherwise well-established set of rules and guidelines.

Let’s give the benefit of the doubt as to the weight of this group or even of its very existence (some speak of a fictional story made up to legitimize a fringe of the staff, which otherwise would be insignificant) and we’ll see how it goes. Let’s hope the outcome of the independent review of the Ethics Committee’s investigation will be the last episode of this series and, therefore, an ultimate end to this crisis.

Should the crisis continue beyond this last episode, the reputation of the Institution will inevitably take a hit and generate a wave of negative impact in a durable fashion. That is, I think, the key underlying issue in this crisis. The institution’s reputation –its most important asset, even before its staff– is indeed at stake. For now, we can assume that this reputation remains immune given the affirmed AAA rating from the rating agency Standard & Poors received this June, hence during the crisis.

Nonetheless, this rating measures rather the Institution’s solvency or its ability to honour its commitments, which is effectively not questioned throughout this crisis. Another card that the United States could lay out if the crisis drags on, is its joker: the outright withdrawal from the Institution or the threat of such withdrawal. Frankly, in this disaster scenario, though unlikely, all parties will lose. Admittedly, however, the withdrawal of the United States from the WHO at the end of May is a strong enough precedent to understand that we are still not immune to such disaster. The law of the strongest is still an option, unfortunately.

The United States is a nation still earning wide admiration and merit from its leadership in many respects including subjects such as the economy, finance, entrepreneurship, sport, cinema and show business but certainly not as regards to ethics, good governance or corruption where they are far from being the best, let alone being acknowledged as references in these areas. Nevertheless it is quite odd that the American administration, via its most senior official, allows itself to call our dear Africa “asshole” and then wishes to impose itself upon this very continent as lecturer in ethics. Can they talk to us about good governance when this very administration is awarding contracts to members of the family of its top official in the open? This is pure nepotism for those who, out of decency, would not want to hear it openly. Can they tell us about corruption when, until recently (May 2020), a court of appeal in the United States re-opened a lawsuit accusing the American president of abuse of power by illegally receiving payments from foreign governments and American states for his hotel in Washington DC?

All this to me clearly indicates that the concern of the United States in the AfDB dossier is not to resolve issues of ethics, good governance, nepotism, corruption or the likes, otherwise they would be sweeping at their own doorsteps in the first place. I see rather a simple question of ego because the personality of the man incarnated by President Adesina does not quite fit with what is expected of a leader of an institution they consider junior and moreover African. The clash at the beginning of the year, through the press, over AfDB’s allegedly aggressive lending policy as labelled by the President of the World Bank on a paternalistic tone of a lecturer but not having received the expected assent of the President of the African Development Bank is certainly no stranger to this ordeal.

In simple terms: President Adesina is in the sights of the US Administration. Despite the evidence, it raises eyebrows to undertake all these steps so close to the date of the elections for the position of President of AfDB (in less than 2 months now). Yet, these elections are clearly well suited for anyone eager to remove President Adesina from office to bring all its weigh to bear and rallying as much support as necessary to cast votes confirming an eventual majority backing such scheme.

In 1995, President Babacar Ndiaye, few months ahead of the end of his second term as head of AfDB, had also been subject to all sorts of pressure, mainly from members of the Board of Directors calling explicitly for his resignation. They did not win their case but not without ruling-out unorthodox ploys until the very last weeks of his final term. It was essentially the lending policy in a context of a global recession at that time that threw the bone between the various parties. The current crisis, similar in many respects to that of 1995, will certainly be resolved as at that time, that is, by focusing on the big picture and standing by basic principles of democracy as commanded by granting further recognition to the voices that consider themselves inaudible. Along the same lines, I would like to quote two excerpts from President Ndiaye’s book ”Foi de Banquier” (Faith of a Banker) published in 1995:

·       “The creation of the Staff Association remains […] a valuable asset, as it has become […] an important instrument for strengthening dialogue within the Bank. [… ] Without a doubt, it enables better horizontal and vertical communication, cementing an integration and reinforced solidarity for the consolidation of a true corporate culture within AfDB”

·       “Accountable before our brothers. Only a conceited spirit can claim to be freed from the verdict of this large jury, sometimes with the dimensions of an anonymous crowd. It is, in fact, the load of every public man, exercising a public magisterium, to be on everybody’s radar, to be the focus of all.”

I firmly believe in an imminent and seamless end to the crisis given that the Board of Governors has already authorised the launch of an independent review of the Ethics Committee’s investigation report. Consequently, AfDB staff are implicitly repositioned at the centre of the debate and their concerns will be revisited with even greater impartiality and diligence.  At the end of this commendable exercise, a greater Institution will emerge and will carry on in the normal course of its activities with complete peace of mind. At least, this is my most ardent wish ».

 

About Alassane Ndiaye

Alassane Ndiaye, the eldest son of the late Babacar Ndiaye, former President of the African Development Bank (1985-1995), has been based in Johannesburg for nearly a decade, where he runs Rayon Investments PTY Ltd, an investment advisory firm, which he is the co-founder of, in partnership with a prominent black South African lawyer. The firm’s clientele includes start-ups and growth stage companies, all with African capital and for investments in Africa. Alassane Ndiaye is also a former World Bank Group lead staff with 15 years of experience, based successively in Washington DC and then in Abidjan, Douala and Johannesburg. Before heading back to Africa he began his career in the United States with the investment bank Merrill Lynch in Boston and the Treasury of the City of Boston. A graduate of Northeastern University and Boston University – both in the United States – respectively with a Bachelor in Development Economics and a Master in Economics and Finance, Alassane Ndiaye is a member of the Ethics Committee at the Institute of Bankers in South Africa (IOBSA) and a member of the Board of Directors of Digitech Africa Ltd, a pan-African “insurtech” company. This chronicle expresses the views of a senior executive on one of the hottest trending topics in Africa’s financial news.

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