*Updated with new AfDB statement.
ADDIS ABABA/LAGOS — Staffers across the African Development Bank are pushing back at attempts by its top management to quietly resolve a major diplomatic spat with the government of Ethiopia after two members of its country management team were physically attacked in Addis Ababa.
The Oct. 31 assaults took place during an AfDB visit by the country manager to Ethiopia’s finance ministry. Two people familiar with the matter said there had been an email phishing incident by fraudsters which had led to the disappearance of over $5 million intended to be deposited into the bank. But it is still unclear if the attacks on the AfDB officials by the ministry’s security guards were directly related to the disappearance of the funds. The bank said it is awaiting the outcome of Ethiopia’s investigation “which we expect to be prompt and transparent.”
The AfDB’s senior leadership in Addis Ababa, led by Ethiopia country manager Abdul Kamara, were initially detained but then later violently assaulted leaving Kamara with visible facial injuries in a photo seen by Semafor Africa that has been shared in influential Ethiopian social media circles. An earlier AfDB statement said the two staff members were “unlawfully arrested, physically assaulted, and detained for many hours by elements of the security forces without any official explanation.”
The AfDB’s president Akinwumi Adesina has tried to reassure staff that the matter is being taken seriously and reached out to Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed over the incident. Adesina has also filed a complaint. In an internal memo to staff, seen by Semafor Africa, Adesina said: “The safety, security, rights, privileges and diplomatic immunities of our staff in all countries where we operate are of paramount importance.” He also said that none of the bank’s operations in Ethiopia had been affected by the incident.
But there is some disquiet among long-time staffers who want the bank to take much more bold action with harsh sanctions on Ethiopia to ensure the bank’s staff are not at risk in even more volatile countries. “At the least we should have suspended operations and withdrawn all personnel. To send a strong signal,” said one staffer in a text message seen by Semafor Africa. Another text suggested the bank would be “endorsing state-sponsored thuggery” if the AfDB did not take strong action.
In a statement, the bank described such characterization of its response as “incorrect” pointing out the “very serious diplomatic matter” had been addressed at the highest levels.
The AfDB is Africa’s leading development finance institution, and its staffers are typically accorded with diplomatic immunity like other DFIs. One of the ways it is seen as different from the larger World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, is that it is perceived to have specialist expertise and a closer understanding of Africa’s economic realities.
The bank, headquartered in Côte d’Ivoire’s capital Abidjan, has been an important partner for Ethiopia on a string of development projects across energy, transport, water supply and sanitation, and agriculture.
The bank sent a delegation of senior leadership to Addis Ababa this week to address the incident.
The incident is a major embarrassment to Ethiopia’s reputation as Africa’s diplomatic capital and headquarters of the African Union. In the last three years, the nation has been forced to grapple with the reality of conflicts and violence hurting its reputation as a hub for foreign direct investments.
Key parts of the country remain in conflict amid loss of investments and destruction of critical infrastructure. The bulk of industrial parks are currently deserted as a result of Ethiopia’s removal from preferential trade agreements, including the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA).
This is a really bad time for any Ethiopian officials to be seen as antagonizing one of the Horn of Africa nation’s most impactful economic partners. The economy is in the doldrums, several international organizations have left, and more are likely to leave. There’s a lot riding on Abiy carefully negotiating and reaching some sort of agreement with Adesina rather than allowing the situation to escalate.
But Adesina himself will start to feel pressure if more senior members of his team voice concern about how this is being handled. It is an incredibly sensitive matter, especially if the bank’s staff start to feel unsafe in the African countries they operate in. Adesina will be seeking a reasonable compromise that doesn’t appear to let the Ethiopians off the hook without suggesting there won’t be a significant punishment for those involved.
Room for Disagreement
Not everyone internally thinks the bank has been weak in its response. One senior staffer, who took a more long view, told Semafor Africa that they didn’t agree with some of the strong sentiment among colleagues. “I think the bank is being cautious to not be overly dramatic.”