The International Monetary Fund (IMF) has cautioned Nigeria and other Sub-Saharan African countries over the risks of close economic ties with China.
The warning, issued in the latest IMF Regional Economic Outlook on Sub-Saharan Africa, is coming amid reports that Nigeria’s debt to China had risen to $4.73 billion as of June 30, 2023.
Data on Nigeria’s external debt profile from the Debt Management Office (DMO) showed that the country’s debt to China increased by $800 million in one year, from $3.93 billion as of June 30, 2022, to $4.73 billion as of June 30, 2023.
The debt involves concessionary loans that the Nigerian government obtained to finance the execution of infrastructural projects ranging from power generation, railways, water supply, airport terminals, agricultural processing and communication.
Projects being executed with Chinese loans include the Nigerian National Public Security Communication System project, Wu-Kaduna section of the railway modernisation project, Abuja light rail project, Nigerian Information and Communication Technology infrastructure backbone project, Abuja, Lagos, Kano and Rivers airport terminals’ expansion project, Zungeru hydroelectric power project, 40-parboiled rice processing plants project, Lagos–Ibadan section of the railway modernisation project, and rehabilitation/upgrading of the Abuja-Keffi-Markurdi road project.
The first Chinese loan, a sum of $200 million agreed on in 2006 to finance the Nigerian Communications Satellite project, has been cleared by the Federal Government with additional payment of $40.02 million interest.
Nigeria’s rising indebtedness to China underscores the close economic ties between both countries. According to an article by Cui Jianchun, Chinese Ambassador to Nigeria, posted on the website of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China, from 2016 to 2021, bilateral trade between Nigeria and China increased by nearly 142 per cent.
The Chinese ambassador added that in the first ten months of 2022, the bilateral trade volume reached $20.04 billion. Currently, Nigeria is China’s third largest trading partner in Africa, and China is Nigeria’s largest source of imports.
However, in its latest Regional Economic Outlook, released in October 2023, the IMF warned that Nigeria and other Sub-Saharan African countries are exposed to vulnerabilities due to their close economic ties with China.
In ‘Analytical Notes’ on the Regional Economic Outlook: Sub-Saharan Africa, titled, ‘At a Crossroads: Sub-Saharan Africa’s Economic Relations with China’, the IMF noted that Sub-Saharan African countries have forged broadly beneficial economic ties with China over the last two decades, adding that China has become the region’s largest trading partner, a major credit provider, and a significant source of foreign direct investment.
But the IMF warned that dangers lie ahead, noting that the recent slowdown in economic growth in China will have adverse effects on trading partners in Sub-Saharan Africa, including Nigeria.
The IMF noted: “However, China’s support to Africa has also faced some criticisms. Recently, China has retrenched its financing activities in sub-Saharan Africa amid a growth slowdown and reduced risk appetite. The projected future deceleration in China’s growth is likely to affect African trading partners negatively over the medium term, mainly through reduced trade.”
The IMF further observed that funding for infrastructural projects will take a hit if the slowdown in economic growth forces China to pull back from its commitments to Sub-Saharan African countries.
The danger is that China is currently the major source of funding for infrastructural projects in African countries, including Nigeria.
According to the IMF, “China has also become a major funding source for African governments since the early 2000s after initiating its official “go out” policy. Chinese loans — mostly directed at financing public infrastructure projects — have risen rapidly in the region in the late 2000s. Consequently, China’s share of total sub-Saharan African external public debt rose from less than 2 percent before 2005 to about 17 percent in 2021.
“This has provided African countries with a new source of infrastructure financing, and China is now the largest bilateral official lender to countries in the region.”
Five countries – Angola, Kenya, Zambia, Cameroon and Nigeria – account for 55 per cent of official Sub-Saharan African debt to China, according to the IMF.
The IMF also observed that there is a correlation between the prevalence of bilateral trade and lending disbursement between China and Sub-Saharan African countries – implying that that African countries that engage in higher volumes of trade with China receive more loans from the Chinese government.
Apart from the surge in Chinese loans to Sub-Saharan African countries, the IMF noted that China’s Foreign Direct Investment, FDI, to Sub-Saharan Africa increased significantly since 2006, reaching about 23 per cent of annual FDI inflows (or $3 billion) to the region in 2021.
But, according to the IMF, warning signs emerged in China’s economic ties with Sub-Saharan African countries when, during the 2021 China-Africa Cooperation Forum, China announced its first cutback in financial support to Africa, from $60 billion to $40 billion over three years. The reduction was linked to China shifting away from direct infrastructure financing toward more trade credit, a development that was believed to have been informed by many African countries’ increased debt vulnerabilities.
The IMF further observed that Chinese lending to Sub-Saharan Africa has drawn considerable criticism over imposition of relatively harsh terms on debtors and using natural resources as collateral.
“Other concerns include the lack of standardization and transparency in public debt because Chinese lenders do not systematically document loans to individual overseas borrowers, leading to significant data gaps,” the IMF added.
The Nigerian government had repeatedly assured that loans obtained from China came with very lenient terms.
But in 2020, there were concerns that the controversial ‘waiving sovereignty’
clause in the commercial loan agreement signed between Nigeria and Export-Import Bank of China ceded part of Nigeria’s sovereignty to China.
However, then Minister of Transportation Rotimi Amaechi explained that the clause did not cede sovereignty in the technical sense but provided some relief to enable China to take over Nigerian assets for loan recovery if and when necessary.
According to the IMF, Sub-Saharan African countries that are either in debt distress or at high risk of debt distress account for about 40 per cent of the total public debt stock to China at the end of 2020. The prevailing situation in those countries had thrown up the need for debt restructuring. However, the IMF noted that debt restructuring negotiations for some countries have been slow and challenging.
Noting that China is currently experiencing a decline in economic growth, the IMF warned that Sub-Saharan Africa could face spillovers from China’s continued slowdown.
“China’s growth has declined even further since the pandemic, and the latest IMF projections show average annual growth of only about 4 percent in the next five years, with notable trends toward reduced investment and greener technologies.
“Given the deep economic ties, a further slowdown in China’s growth in the medium to long-term is likely to affect economic activity negatively in Sub-Saharan Africa,” the IMF said in its latest Regional Economic Outlook. It added that negative spillovers would emerge primarily from trade links, in the form of decline in export volumes and commodity prices.
To avert the danger, the IMF advised that Sub-Saharan African countries should adapt to evolving economic ties. “Sub-Saharan Africa has benefited from China’s growth take-off, but the region needs to adapt to China’s slowdown and declining economic engagements.”
To adapt to the situation, and ultimately escape the dangers posed by the Chinese slowdown, the IMF advised Sub-Saharan African countries to increase regional trade integration, strengthen policy frameworks to reduce macro-economic vulnerabilities and external reliance, promote economic diversification, and undertake reforms to create favourable business environments.
However, some economists and financial analysts, who spoke with DAILY POST, said Nigeria is not at risk over economic ties with China.
Muda Yusuf, Chief Executive Officer, Centre for the Promotion of Private Enterprise, CPPE, said Nigeria has nothing to worry about concerning the reported economic slowdown in China.
“I don’t think it is something Nigeria should worry about. I don’t think the challenge the Chinese economy is facing is that grave. I don’t think it has reached a level we have to worry about,” Yusuf said in a telephone interview with DAILY POST.
Secondly, if you have trade relations with someone, if the economy is slowing down, the risk you face is very low. If things are not working out with them you can always find another trading partner. I don’t think the risk Nigeria face is that high, even if their (China) economy is slowing down. But I don’t think the Chinese economy is facing any major problem.”
Yusuf noted that what Nigeria should worry about is the country’s rising debt level and the attendant high cost of debt servicing. “If there is any alarm concerning China, I think such alarm is disproportionate,” he added.
Ayo Teriba, Chief Executive Officer, Economic Associates, EA, argued that the IMF warning is a distraction as Nigeria has a lot of internal economic issues it should be worried about.
“Nigeria has more than enough to be worried about at home. Chinese economic outlook is the least of the problems of Nigeria. Nigeria has its own baggage and should prioritize addressing its own baggage rather than the marginal effects that the outlook of China may or may not have on Nigeria,” he said.
Teriba also observed that IMF forecasts are not always stable.
You cannot swear on IMF forecasts. They will do a forecast today and revise it tomorrow. They release forecasts and revise them several times before the year runs out. So if you begin to tell Nigeria to start worrying about IMF forecast on China, you will be distracting Nigeria from addressing non-forecast problems that Nigeria has.”
According to him, “the problems Nigeria has to deal with are factual, they are not forecasts”.
“We have problems of foreign exchange to deal with, we have matters of fiscal to deal with, and we have matters of systemic liquidity and market liquidity to deal with. They are here in the present, it is not about next year forecast. Let’s not shift our attention, charity begins at home,” Teriba stressed.