Seasoned AfDB official banks on 'institutional memory,' experience in presidency bid

Thomas Sakala, former vice president of country and regional programs at the African Development Bank. Photo by: Jean-Marc Ferré / United Nations Geneva / CC BY-NC-ND

Having spent over three decades at the African Development Bank, Thomas Sakala is supposed to know better than most of his competitors the bank’s history, its politics, its developed strengths and where it is still struggling.

From being a loans officer — his first job at the bank in 1983 — Sakala climbed the ranks and served senior positions in different capacities. He sat as manager of the bank’s human resource and education division, and served as resident representative of its office in Nigeria. He also headed the team in charge of implementing the bank’s reform agenda.

He also became involved in the bank’s programming and budget, at one point served as acting vice president of corporate services, before finally becoming vice president of country and regional programs and policies, under which he coordinated the bank’s programs across 54 African countries as well as those targeted at regional economic groupings.

He stepped down as country and regional programs vice president in August to pursue the topmost position at the bank.

These different positions have allowed Sakala to get insights on the expectations and constraints of the bank’s donors, helped him understand better the bank’s resource allocation system, and be in a position to, as his profile suggests, “contribute to [the bank’s] overall strategic orientation.”

“I have developed a keen, critical and unequalled ‘institutional memory’. Most crucially, I recognize that the bank is a dynamic institution requiring change and adjustment; and I have the tool set and broad perspectives on what has worked and what has not,” he said in his vision for AfDB.

But while Sakala is leveraging his experience to secure the AfDB presidency, some experts argue it may actually hurt his chances, as some member countries might prefer to install a new face with a fresh set of ideas for the bank.

A boost, not a change

Given his extensive knowledge of the bank’s inner workings, one might expect the seasoned AfDB official would initiate a few significant new initiatives or measures at the bank.

Unlike some of his peers, however, Sakala isn’t advocating for a sea change in the bank’s work and function. Instead, he aims to refine current bank priorities and processes — consolidating similar efforts, improving the quality of project delivery and increasing bank engagement with different stakeholders.

In its work on infrastructure development, for instance, AfDB could pay “special attention” to investments that address rapid urbanization in Africa, promote intraregional trade and boost the continent’s rural economies.

Rapid urbanization has presented new challenges for many African governments, which may not always have the capacity to handle the fast growth of towns and cities and deliver services to the rising populations there. Greater regional integration, meanwhile, could help AfDB deepen dialogue with member countries and its knowledge of the current operational environment, and “develop new competencies.”

“We need to go beyond checklists of desired achievements or targets. We should strive to understand what drives gender prejudice, exclusion and violence in the different communities, environments and countries.”

— Thomas Sakala on his vision for AfDB.

To tackle fragility, Sakala aims to “maintain a push for increased understanding of what drives the identified fragile and conflict situations through sensitive engagement with key players, strengthening and supporting the building of effective institutions, championing equality before the law, and promoting the opening of political and economic space to foster a greater sense of inclusion among different population groups.”

And for Sakala, whoever replaces outgoing President Donald Kaberuka should ensure the successful takeoff of the Africa50 Infrastructure Fund into “a fully fledged, autonomous fund for Africa’s ‘infrastructure revolution.’”

Going ‘beyond checklists’

The former AfDB official however does acknowledge areas where the bank needs to up its game, and proposes specific actions on how he deems to implement those changes under his leadership.

For example, progress on gender equality remains “thin on the ground” despite having deployed gender specialists and appointing a gender envoy.

“We need to go beyond checklists of desired achievements or targets. We should strive to understand what drives gender prejudice, exclusion and violence in the different communities, environments and countries,” he argued, proposing to provide stronger support to gender specialists so they can build greater awareness of the importance of addressing the gender issue, not just externally but also among bank staff.

In promoting private sector development, meanwhile, he wants the bank to pay attention to national development banks and “emerging special purpose vehicles” whose presence can play a significant part in the bank’s goals of boosting lending for infrastructure, as well as to small and medium enterprises.

And to realize the bank’s goal of being that “respected voice” within and outside the continent on Africa’s transformation agenda, he underscored the importance of the bank producing “relevant, cutting-edge analytical work,” as well as enabling senior management — not just the president — to convey in a clear and consistent manner the bank’s position on key issues.

His vision is for the bank to become the “economic spokesperson” of Africa.

Could Zakala’s more than three decades of experience at the African Development Bank help or hurt his chances of securing the presidency? Let us know by leaving a comment below.

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About the author

  • Jenny Lei Ravelo

    Jenny Lei Ravelo is a Devex Senior Reporter based in Manila. She covers global health, with a particular focus on the World Health Organization, and other development and humanitarian aid trends in Asia Pacific. Prior to Devex, she wrote for ABS-CBN, one of the largest broadcasting networks in the Philippines, and was a copy editor for various international scientific journals. She received her journalism degree from the University of Santo Tomas.