It is the type of scandal that exposes not just conflicts in terms of transparency or malfeasance but also speaks fundamental questions about how different parts of the world perceive the interplay between power, money, and influence. Akinwumi Adesina, president of the African Development Bank, is facing tough times ahead with the announcement that an investigative panel headed by former Irish president Mary Robinson will review an AfDB ethics committee report that cleared Adesina of any wrongdoing.

The original ethics committee report came about as a result of an explosive set of whistleblower allegations in January, which accused the Nigerian of violating internal rules and demonstrating a pattern of nepotism, mismanagement, misuse of the Bank’s resources, and preferential treatment. According to the whistleblowers, Adesina arbitrarily intervened in hiring processes and overruled the work of independent recruiters, leaving key roles vacant and hiring his Nigerian countrymen at an outsized rate – including, allegedly, his brother-in-law. The dustup over the accusations has placed the AfDB’s Western and African shareholders at odds, with tremendous stakes for the AAA-rated lender, its $208 billion capital base, and the continent at large.

High-stakes showdown in Abidjan

The United States, which is the second-largest shareholder in the AfDB, questioned the results of an internal ethics review that absolved Adesina of all wrongdoing. Together with the United Kingdom and a number of Nordic countries, the American government successfully pushed for an independent investigation into Adesina’s conduct. The African governments the AfDB serves, on the other hand, have largely lined up in support of the embattled bank president, with 54 African countries supporting his re-election and Adesina’s supporters accusing his American detractors of imperialism and hypocrisy. Adesina’s native Nigeria, the bank’s largest shareholder, is also firmly in his corner.

Beyond the specific questions surrounding Adesina’s conduct and the viability of his position, the battle between Washington and the AfDB brass speaks to fundamental cultural differences in how the impact of nepotism is viewed in the developing world and in governance more broadly. Despite the familial hiring practices of the Donald Trump administration, nepotism of the sort Adesina is accused of is generally seen as unethical, if not illegal, across the Western world. In much of sub-Saharan Africa, on the other hand, nepotism is part and parcel of everyday governance, with post-colonial state structures institutionalizing ties of kinship and tribal affiliation across the continent.

Putting family first can put development last

Those deep-rooted patterns of tradition pose a real problem for the continent’s future. In the African political context (and on both sides of the Sahara), corruption and nepotism have gone hand in hand, with the most corrupt political leaders in modern African history propping up their regimes by appointing kinsmen to key positions of authority.

In the Democratic Republic of Congo, for example, Joseph Kabila’s 18-year presidency failed to make substantive gains in education, poverty, or security, but it did see his family build a business empire that included over 80 companies and tens of millions of dollars’ worth of state assets. Kabila’s siblings, including his brother Zoé and his sister Jaynet, emerged as key figures in the country’s mining, telecommunications, and other industries.

Across the border in Angola, a similar trend played out under the tenure of José Eduardo dos Santos. As revealed by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists with its “Luanda Leaks” series earlier this year, dos Santos’ daughter Isabel leveraged her father’s nearly four decades in power to make herself the richest woman in Africa. In a country where gross domestic product per capita falls under $3,500, Isabel dos Santos built an estimated $2 billion fortune thanks to key stakes in the country’s oil industry, diamond sector, and telecoms infrastructure, all granted by her father’s government.

No country is immune

Even the continent’s most transparent governments nonetheless follow this trend. In Botswana, for example, which is widely perceived as the least corrupt country in Africa and a “glimmer of hope” for anti-corruption efforts, nepotism and patronage networks are endemic to the public sector. Former President Ian Khama, for example, named his brother Tshekedi as minister of wildlife, environment, and tourism and his cousin Ramadeluka Seretse minister of defense and justice, while a number of other relatives and childhood friends benefited from government positions or contracts. That practice has produced some explosive fights within Botswana’s bureaucracy, such as the 2018 battle in the Botswana Energy Regulatory Authority over the suspension of chief operations officer Duncan Morotsi.

While the board of BERA moved to suspend Morotsi over improper hiring, the agency’s CEO Rose Seretse – another relative through marriage of former President Ian Khama – stood by Morotsi and allowed him to ignore the suspension. Instead, the BERA board itself was dissolved last year. The bureaucratic conflict nonetheless continues, with former minister Sadique Kebonang accusing Rose Seretse and her deputy, Duncan Morotsi, of misconduct including misusing government property and not paying taxes. Seretse responded to the allegations by sacking BERA’s accounting staff for talking to the press.

AfDB should set a better example

With these types of examples in mind, it shouldn’t come as a shock that an institution like the AfDB, whose non-African shareholders make up 40 percent of its equity and form the bedrock of its impeccable credit rating, would become a battleground between African and international views on appropriate hiring practices. However, this crisis may also present an opportunity to examine the broader societal impact of the tendency to put one’s family or tribe over a broader sense of nationhood.

In addition to fueling corruption, that trend has had tragic consequences all over Africa. It directly shapes the prism through which parties – and their voters – view statecraft, with different tribal groupings treating the political process as zero-sum contests for power and resources, instead of as a mechanism for identifying and working towards shared social and economic goals. The AfDB, as one of the key investment mechanisms for African economic growth and development, should be setting a standard as a better alternative.

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