The African debt trap: fact or myth?

Radia Mernissi is an International Relations student, her Moroccan background make her particularly interested in North African politics and neo-imperialism. She is also passionate about International Law and its application to conflict and security.

China’s lending practices have progressively taken importance in Africa, and today, are active in 35 African nations. This article seeks to analyse and understand the advent of these lending policies and how they differ from the traditional Western-led ones. Moreover, it will demonstrate that western critics who prove that these practices had geopolitical goals are unfounded and remain a myth.

​After decolonisation, African countries heavily depended on European and American managed international financial organisations to conduct their development. Through the Washington consensus, they would receive loans accompanied by conditionality, meaning that their model of development followed western thoughts. In practice, the results were deceiving, and many concluded that the “one size fits all” model was overly simplistic. In that light, the neo-imperial character was also emphasised, leading many countries to rely on other modes of development, and the loans granted by these institutions lost their demand. 

Nowadays, African nations are considered to represent the second largest growing economy. It faces unique urbanisation and seeks to close the infrastructural gap. As exemplified, it seems like the conditionality imposed by the traditional western lenders is not seen as a sound alternative. In that context, China emerges and offers an alternative, that appears to take these states more seriously. Indeed, Xi Jinping’s government presents itself as facing the same anti-colonial struggle and as a trade partner accompanying the government, rather than replacing or manipulating them. By 2009, China surpassed the US to become the first trade partner of Africa, focussing mainly on providing and managing infrastructural projects.  These investments have been named Belt Road Initiatives. China was placed as an appropriate actor to formulate and spread a developmental model on its terms.

But what has been the Western answer to this Chinese internationalisation and presence in Africa?

Mike Pence, former vice president of the US, termed these Chinese actions as a “Dept-trap”. This narrative was preponderant in Western minds, it depicts that China’s loans purposely trap poor countries into unsustainable and hardly repayable so that they can control them politically in the future. Hence, it stipulates that Beijing’s objectives are not to help these nations but rather to expand its power.

But to what extent are these accusations well-founded in the case of Africa?

In 2021, it was reported by a large amount of news outlets, following this narrative, that the Entebbe international airport was going to be taken over by China as Uganda was struggling to repay its loan. The reality showed that it was never the case and China did not plan to take over the airport. In fact, these western’s politicians’ “dept trap” interpretation can easily be revoked by numbers. While African countries are indebted to China, we cannot talk about a debt crisis. For instance, Bloomberg’s numbers demonstrate that Chinese debt only represents 5% of the total debt of Nigeria. Hence, we can argue that the Chinese Belt Road initiative should be viewed as it is: an economic project. In fact, even if China seeks to enhance its great power status through these loans, the main objectives and mechanisms do not convey any political objectives.

All in all, this article shows that qualifying the Chinese infrastructure loans strategy as a “debt trap” seems to be not the result of solid facts and numbers but rather it seeks to minimise and discredit the Chinese alternative developmental model in Africa.

Image credit: https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2021/02/china-debt-trap-diplomacy/617953/

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