African Development Bank’s Decision to Pull International Staff from Ethiopia

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Last month, the African Development Bank (AfDB) formally complained to Ethiopian authorities that some of its staff had been physically assaulted and detained by uniformed security forces on October 31. The bank’s hierarchy described it as a “highly significant diplomatic incident.”

Now, nearly two months into the incident, AfDB country office has made the decision to remove its international personnel from Addis Ababa. In an internal memo circulated, AfDB’s Chief Executive Akinwumi Adesuba said, “We remain particularly concerned that the Ethiopian government has, to date, not shared with us any report or details of investigations into this gross infringement”. While the office will remain operational, withdrawal of international staff would take place effective immediately. According to the bank’s website, it currently has eight projects in the country, totaling approximately $308 million.

The incident first began in what appeared to be a cyber-phishing attack, whereby Ethiopia’s Ministry of Finance was scammed $5 million. Ethiopia was expected to fulfill that amount in annual membership payment to the AfDB recently, but there are concerns that the funds might have fallen into the hands of scammers. Since an investigation is still lagging, we do not know who was behind the purported phishing attack.

A previous report by Abren described the incident in some detail. Sources close to the ministry suggest that the origin of the phishing attack assumed AfDB credentials, though specific details on this has not been made public. It was following the discovery of this scam AfDB staff where detained and assaulted by uniformed security personnel. “We still don’t know how and why security personnel proceeded to assaulting AfDB staff subsequently”, said one person close to the matter.

AfDB had mentioned that Ethiopian authorities assured an investigation, and the Ethiopian state finance minister, Eyob Tekalign, expressed regret on behalf of the government for the incident. The authorities were said to have begun investigating the case, but no official findings or progress report has been made public yet.

It is not yet clear whether the latest decision by AfDB was made at the chief executive level or whether it involved the banks board of directors. All 54 African countries are members of the bank. There are an addition 27 member countries coming from outside the continent. Nigeria is the leading members and a biggest share holder, followed by the United States and Japan.

Relations between the AfDB and Ethiopia’s finance ministry as well as government officials appeared to be flourishing as recently as September. The bank has been a critical lifeline for investment, at a time when unfavorable internal and external conditions have negatively impacted country’s foreign exchange reserves and FDI flows. Therefore, this occurrence, followed by the sudden downturn in relations has come as a surprise.

Ethiopia has faced increasing cyber-phishing attacks on its financial sector in recent years. According to a report by Microsoft Security and Intelligence, “the country experienced a spike in cyber-attacks, including ransomware and malware infiltrations”. In 2022, The Information National Security Agency (INSA) said, “the cyber-attacks had targeted financial institutions and mega projects, including computer systems of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam.”

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