The Election of A President: A Candidate for the Times


A little discussed but critically important election will take place this month (May) in Africa. A special group of about 54 people from across the continent and some 23 non-regional countries – Governors, they are called – will come together in Abidjan, Cote d’Ivoire, at the end of the month to cast ballots that will determine who will lead the continent’s premier development institution, the African Development Bank (AfDB) for the next five years.

Elections, we all know, have consequences and the AfDB election is expected to generate outcomes that cut across national borders and determine the future in concrete ways. One woman or man will be chosen to not only lead the institution but also redefine the role it plays in Africa’s emergence as a global economic player.

The election of an AfDB President has generally been a quiet operation.  Governments of the bank’s member countries designate their candidates and lobby other governments for support, all done away from the spotlight and any fanfare. There has been no beating of the drums; no newspaper advertisements or billboards of the candidates lining streets in the voting nations. Few Africans know or are concerned about who will lead an institution that would have a major impact on life in their countries.  Yet, the voting will be done in their names and the winning candidate will come with ideas that will ultimately affect the quality of life on the continent.

The AfDB has become a bigger player in Africa’s development now than at any other time in its 55-year existence. The stakes in the elections are higher because the institution has gained in stature under the outgoing President, Dr. Donald Kaberuka, who has been in office over the last 10 years.  An AfDB President is allowed no more than two five-year mandates.

There are eight candidates vying to replace Dr. Kaberuka.  It is probably the most unpredictable election yet, with candidates who are not only eminently qualified but also greatly respected within and beyond the continent.  They represent countries from all geographies, with experience in and out of government, and excellent knowledge of how the international community works.

Each one had to present a vision statement as part of the nomination process.  A cursory reading of those statements shows that all candidates offer an informed analysis of the state of the continent and the role that the bank can play to move Africa forward.  All the candidates emphasise pretty much the same issues that are critical to continental development and spell a vision that is not, in essence, very different from the other.

How then will the voting Governors that constitute the Electoral College sort out a winner and give the bank its next President? Political calculations, regional considerations, and national interests, will all be factored into the choices that country representatives make.  Candidate backgrounds, personalities, vision, and achievements are well known to the electors and will no doubt be made to count in the choice.  The fact is that this set of criteria should not disqualify any of these deserving African leaders.  What the electors should be looking at would have to be the “what else” factor – the tangible and intangible considerations that are most likely to ultimately determine how the candidates perform in office.

Many countries, especially those in Africa, have made their initial choices known. They will cast the ballot for those candidates in the first round of voting. But AfDB Presidents have almost never been selected in just one voting round for a first mandate.  The ballots tend to float more freely during the second round and beyond.  This is where the “what else” factor should be made to count as the electoral conclave is freed of the narrower interests that invariably drive first round voting.

And this is why the following criteria may be given serious consideration.  All things being equal, it may be best to look beyond intellect, experience and geography to find humility, intrinsic difference, language, approachability, and empathy.

Voting governors should quietly find out what is known about each candidate on the humility scale. How many official languages of the African Union does a candidate speak? How eloquent is the candidate and will she or he represent Africa well in the larger concert of nations and global capital markets?  Should the candidate’s gender be considered an asset?  How much of a good listener is the candidate?

Given all we know of the candidates and all that is at stake here, these intangible factors we have identified will give us the candidate of the times. They will actually provide the true measure of the candidate best able to ensure that the AfDB plays it most important role for the continent: build the foundations of change and put Africa on an irreversible course of transformation.