The AfDB in Liberia: Romeo Horton and the Essence of Leadership

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The inauguration of the African Development Bank Group’s Liberia Field Office by President Donald Kaberuka in Monrovia last week echoed memories of Romeo Horton, Liberia’s foremost financier and central bank governor, who fought to establish the Bank at a time when the idea of such an institution sounded so strange as to elicit the question: “Why do you need an African Development Bank?”

Narrating some of his pan-African odyssey at the 40th anniversary of the Bank in Tunis in 2004, Horton, who died on 13 December 2005, confided to his audience that at some point in the negotiations he had to kneel down and beg some African leaders to implement the AfDB plan. He felt that some of the leaders had lost interest, obviously emasculated by the Cold War bogey and the language divide which characterized Africa at the time.

It was therefore befitting that his memory came alive at the launch of the Bank’s 35th field office in his country; because empirical evidence suggests that the AfDB would not be in existence without Horton’s vision, leadership and determination to midwife the institution, which has become an unmistakable icon on the continent’s development landscape.

In his speech inaugurating the office, President Kaberuka touched many hearts with a “special mention of the late Romeo Horton, initiator of the idea of an African Development Bank, whose grandson Romeo presented me with the beautiful welcome bouquet at the airport. To Mrs. Mary Horton, who has graced us with her presence today, I extend special appreciation from our staff, who hold very dearly the memory of your late husband.”

Mr. Horton’s widow, Mary, could not hide her emotion at this instance. For the 84-year-old matriarch, this was the latest of many tributes paid to her husband, who also fought for the creation of the Organization of African Unity and the Economic Community of West African States Fund.

The Liberia Field Office, along with the Bank’s other 34 offices, will enhance the Bank’s ability to better serve the Regional Member Countries in terms of delivering results on the ground through the implementation of projects, program, knowledge production and dissemination.

According to President Kaberuka, the office will also foster the Bank’s economic integration agenda in the Mano River Basin (Côte d’Ivoire, Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone) in particular, and the West African region as a whole. The Bank’s thesis is that appropriate infrastructure is the best guarantee for economies of scale required for sustained economic growth. It would also help mitigate the effects of resource curse and reduce poverty by encouraging investments and reliance on production rather than on proceeds from natural resources.

During the visit, President Kaberuka urged Liberians to be mindful of the resource curse trap, which has truncated inclusive economic growth in many African countries. In his discussions with executive and legislative authorities in Monrovia, President Kaberuka emphasized the need for Liberia, which has just discovered off-shore oil, to ensure that oil revenues are invested in infrastructure and the social sectors to guarantee sustainable shared growth and equitable development.

Liberian officials seem to embrace the warning while expressing profound gratitude to the AfDB for assisting their country during its time of great need.

Speaking at State House, President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf said, “The AfDB has proven to be a great partner and, on behalf of the Liberian people, we want to tell [Kaberuka] how much we appreciate the support he has brought that has enabled us achieve the progress we have made over the years.”

Liberia has been a fragile state by most accounts since 1979, when an increase in the price of rice led to widespread looting and a violent police crackdown in Monrovia. The military government took power one year later and subsequent regimes presided over 14 years of economic decline, instability and more violence.

With support from the AfDB and other development partners, Liberia’s economy recorded its eighth consecutive year of post-war growth in 2011, expanding by an estimated 6.9 per cent in the year. According to the African Economic Outlook, growth is expected to increase to 8.8 per cent in 2012 and to moderate to 7.2 per cent in 2013.

The Bank started operations in Liberia in 1972. Its activities were disrupted by the civil war, which ended in 2003 with a comprehensive peace arrangement paving the way for democratic elections won by Johnson Sirleaf, who was sworn into office in 2006. The Bank’s portfolio at mid-September 2012 comprised 11 operations totaling US $163.4 million (UA 108.2 million) in the areas of multi-sector/governance (33 per cent); water and sanitation (25 per cent); social sector (19 per cent); agriculture and rural development (15 per cent); and finance and private banking (eight per cent).

The institution’s management has pledged to do everything in its power to help the country return to its post-war middle-income status.

That would be the greatest tribute to Romeo Horton, the founding father of the African Development Bank who had a clear vision of securing the well-being of Africa and its people.