One of the major challenges facing African countries in their efforts to meet the development aspirations of their citizens is the debt problem. More than ever before, they are increasingly sinking into the disturbing phenomenon of unsustainable debt burden (Noah Komla Dzobo & Amegashie-Viglo 2004).
African countries are compelled to pay millions of dollars every month to wealthy western nations and their affiliated institutions like the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Bank (WB) and the Paris Club among others, either as interest on old loans or part payment of loans taken several decades back (Simon Amegashie-Viglo 2009:117).
The exact amount of money Africa owes is not really known. The total debt is estimated to be around $550 billion (Alex Danso 1990). The continuous payment of these debts has become unsustainable and affected the development of Africa.
The main causes of African indebtedness can be attributed to both internal and external factors, which may be cyclical and structural in nature. Cyclical causes are causes that are due to developments on the international marketplace and space that work to aggravate existing structural imbalances in trade, like seasonal demands and interest rate fluctuations. Structural causes are due to the existence of imbalances in the international trade system and division of labour.
External structural causes are causes that cannot be influenced by individual African governments, but needed collective action of the international community. Internal causes are those peculiar to individual countries like level of corruption, nepotism, favoritisms, mismanagement of resources and capital flight. (Alex Danso 1990).
Causes of the Debt Problem
1. Corruption and the mismanagement of resources by some African leaders.
One of the most worrying causes of debt in Africa has been corruption and mismanagement of resources. Never in the history of corruption in Africa had one man looted so much of his country’s resources in so short a time to satisfy the parochial interest of his family and friends as Mobutu Sese Seko did in the Democratic Republic of Congo, formerly called Zaire. Mobutu embarked upon a self-enrichment mission on a scale unsurpassed anywhere else in Africa. In 1979, he ordered the seizure of some 2,000 foreign-owned enterprises, including farms, plantations, factories, wholesale firms, and retail shops. No provision was made for compensation of the original owners. Mobutu described his decree as a ‘radicalization of the revolution’. Instead of the state taking control, these enterprises were handed over to individuals as private property. The main beneficiaries were Mobutu and members of his family (Martin Meredith 2006:297).
Mobutu’s personal fortune grew in leaps and bounds. He spent much money assembling a portfolio of luxury houses and estates mostly in Europe. His favaurite residence was a huge palace complex costing $100 million which he built for himself in Gbadolite, a small village some 700 miles north-east of Kinshasa, which he regarded as his ancestral home. His main palace sprawled across 15,000 square meters amid a landscape of ornamental lakes and gardens, equipped with an Olympic-sized swimming pool, a discotheque, luxury guest houses, a hotel and an airport capable of handling supersonic Concorde which Mobutu often chartered from abroad to Gbadolite. (Martin Meredith 2006:299).
An official of the IMF observed: “If Mobutu decides to load a plane with cobalt to sell in Europe, nobody knows about it.” By the end of the 1970s, Mobutu’s had become one of the richest men in the world with an estimated fortune of $ 5 billion (Martin Meredith 2006:299).
Whilst Mobutu was busy accumulating his riches, Zaire plunged head-long into crisis. Mobutu’s expropriation of foreign businesses proved disastrous. Many quickly went bankrupt; some were simply stripped of their assets and abandoned; others were ruined by incompetent management. The disruption caused to commerce, agriculture and trade in rural areas was severe. The steel mill constructed in 1975 by Mobutu at Maluku near Kinshasa at a cost of $250 million with a capacity to produce 250,000 tons of steel a year, four times the requirement of Zaire. The steel mill produced 25,000 in 1975 and dropped to 10,000 tons, and exceeded 10,000 tons per year after 1978 and was shut down in 1986 (Martin Meredith 2006:300).
The plight of Zaire in the later part of Mobutu’s regime was pitiful. Hospitals were closed down for lack of medicine and equipment, deserted by staff unwilling to continue working without pay. Most of the roads remained usable to motor traffic and the river transport system was completely wrecked. Unemployment levels became much higher, poverty levels were increasing and inflation was so high that wages were only 10% their 1960 levels in 1978 (Martin Meredith 2006:303). Relief agencies estimated that 40% of Kinshasa’s population suffered from severe malnutrition. In the rural areas agricultural production dropped sharply because only one percent of the land was cultivated.
The state existed to serve only the interest of the ruling elite, whilst the ordinary people were left to fend for themselves (Martin Meredith 2006:303).
Despite the fact the Mobutu regime had become worryingly repressive and corrupt; it nevertheless enjoyed the support of western governments. Mobutu’s pro-western and anti-Soviet stance earned him much political and diplomatic credit in western capitals notably in Washington, where he was regarded as a ‘friendly tyrant and a faithful ally’ by the US (Martin Meredith 2006:307).
Mining in the Democratic Republic of Congo is a big business. The country holds vast reserves of cobalt, copper, gold, diamonds and many other minerals estimated to be around US$ 24 trillion (Lewis Brooks 2012:66) the struggle for the control of these minerals has triggered civil wars and political instability that have claimed well over six million people since independence in 1960 (Mvemba Phezo Dizolele 2012:7).
When the Mobutu regime could no longer serve the interest of the western nations in looting the resources of the Democratic Republic of Congo, they actively supported Laurent Kabila’s rebellion against Mobutu (Africawatch: July 2010:53). During the rebellion, Kabila was signing multi-billion-dollar mining deals, in the rebel controlled Shaba Province, with American and other western multinational mining corporations to develop Zaire’s copper, cobalt, gold, zinc and diamond deposits, whilst Mobutu was still at post in Kinshasa as president. Eventually, the Mobutu regime was overthrown in May 1997 and Laurent Kabila became the darling boy of the west. Kabila was described by the western media as, ‘a messiah with enormous personal credibility’ (Africawatch: July 2010:55).
When Kabila fell out with the west because reviewed the mining contracts within a year and demanded payments upfront, he was described as ‘a petty tyrant who could not work with others…. for fear that the west wanted to re-colonise Congo and steal its vast mineral wealth’. ‘A thug and pimp who attained the presidency almost by accident’ ‘A man not noted for his intellect or leadership qualities; a lazy, incompetent oaf who ate two chickens for breakfast. Western diplomats and statesmen viewed him as a man impossible to do business with. The IMF and the World Bank found him so obstructive that talks on new aid were abandoned. (Africawatch: July 2010:55).
He was finally assassinated by one of his personal body guards, Rachidi Kasereka, on 16th January 2001 in Kinshasa, in what is believed to be a western sponsored conspiracy against Laurent Kabila (Africawatch: July 2010:55). Laurent Kabila was succeeded by his son; Joseph Kabila who the west believes is capable of providing stability to Congo (Mvemba Phezo Dizolele 2012:9).
Perhaps next to Mobutu Sese Seko, on the scale of corruption in Africa was General Sani Abacha who ruled for five years after a 1993 coup and shocked even Nigerians with his level of plundering state funds. The greed of Abacha, Abacha He is believed to have stolen $4.3bn while in office. In one case, he was accused of gutting a $500m state-owned steel plant. The tradition has continued as Nigeria’s oil wealth continues to be looted.
In April, James Ibori, an influential governor, was jailed in the UK for looting $250m over eight years (Monica Mark 2012). The Abacha family has largely lain low since the short, flamboyant general died of a heart attack while cavorting with Indian prostitutes. As his death sparked an outpouring of jubilation, his wife Maryam was caught trying to flee the country with 38 cash-stuffed suitcases (Monica Mark 2012).
A push to recover $4bn siphoned away into the family’s private accounts in Switzerland forced the tax haven to relax banking secrecy regulations after landmark rulings. In 2006, the Swiss authorities returned $500m to Nigeria – the first time European banks had returned looted money to an African country. Nigeria’s anti-corruption agency estimates about $400bn has been siphoned off from the oil-rich country into private pockets since 1960. Globally, developing countries lose up to $40bn a year through corruption, according to the World Bank (Monica Mark 2012).
Abacha and company also stole huge amounts of money through the debt buy-back fraud, with which they defrauded Nigeria of more than $282 million by causing the government of Nigeria to repurchase its own debt from one of their companies for more than double what Nigeria would have paid to repurchase the debt on the open market (David Enweremadu 2013).
New audits in Nigeria suggest that Africa’s biggest oil producer is losing millions of dollars to corruption. Nigeria the world’s eighth-biggest and Africa’s biggest oil producer nation has attracted billions of dollars in investment from top oil companies in the world. It produces between 2 million to 2.6 million barrels per day of oil. Yet poverty in Nigeria, Africa’s second-largest economy, is worryingly rising with almost 100 million people living on less than a dollar per day because of corruption and mismanagement of its oil revenue (Joe Brock & Tim Cocks 2012:63).
In 2013, the Governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria, Lamido Sanusi, claimed that the state oil company had failed to remit tens of billions of oil revenue it owed the Nigerian state. He attributed leakages of cash in the Nigerian oil industry to corruption, mismanagement and bad governance (Tim Cocks & Joe Brocks 2015).
Raymond Eyo (2012:28) stated that Nigeria is a country where greed and theft of public funds have almost become art forms and several recent scandals have revealed that corruption in Nigeria has reached ‘never-before-seen levels’. The Senate Appropriation Committee Chairman of Nigeria, Ahmed Maccido, admitted that projects worth One Trillion Nairas were smuggled into the 2012 Budget by some ministries and departments Raymond Eyo (2012:28). James Ibori, a former governor of Nigeria’s Delta State, pleaded guilty on 27th February 2012, in a British Court to stealing $ 250 million from Nigerian State Funds (Raymond Eyo 2012:29). Atiku Kigo, a former permanent secretary of the Police Pension Fund of Nigeria, admitted to investigators that public officials pilfered 32.8 Billion Nairas from the Fund under his watch (Raymond Eyo 2012:29). Commenting on corruption in Nigeria, Transparency International (TI) stated: “that the political situation in Nigeria is more of criminality than governance”.
Transparency International decried the rate and scale of scams and corruption in Nigeria in 2011 as beyond anything they had ever dealt with (Raymond Eyo 2012:29).
2. Borrowing at high-interest rates to service debts
Borrowing to pay debts is one of the most disturbing causes of debt in Africa. This business of borrowing to pay debt is known as the debt trap. Debt trap is indeed the vicious circle of taking international or domestic loans to service a county’s debts. For most African countries, the reality of high and rapidly increasing interest rates in the 1970s and 1980s had reached heights that were simply unsustainable for their comparatively weak economies.
This situation resulted in high levels of default which compelled most of them to resort to borrowing in order to service their loan payment obligations (Bouchet 1987).
3. The oil price shocks and crisis of the 1970s and 1980s
The Yom Kippur War of 1973 between Israel and a coalition of Egypt and Syria resulted in sharp increases in oil prices globally from $ 3.00 to $12.00 per barrel. The Overseas Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) exploited the dependency of the western nations on oil, to boost the political power on the international arena (Alex Danso 1990).
A second oil shock occurred in 1979, caused by the outbreak of the first Gulf War between Iran and Iraq. This war resulted in huge losses in the production, storage and distribution of oil that pushed the prices of oil from $ 12 in 1973 to $ 39 per barrel in 1979. This sharp and unanticipated increase pushed most non oil producing African countries into debt, because it forced them into the debt trap of borrowing to meet the oil consumption requirements (Alex Danso 1990).
4. Declining revenue from the export of African primary commodities
For African countries whose incomes depended largely on the export of raw materials, natural disaster, declining rainfall and unpredictability of prices worryingly increased their vulnerability to debt (Simon Amegashie-Viglo 2009:110). They have witnessed a worrying decline of about 50% in the prices for the export of their primary exports commodities in the last 25 years.
In the case of coffee and sugar, this was due to overproduction and saturation of the markets (Bouchet 1987). One should also bear in mind that because of the unequal status within the international trade system, African countries have suffered tremendous losses as a result of the ‘terms of trade’. The capitalist international system of division of labour has assigned African countries the role of producers and suppliers of raw materials (like cocoa, coffee, rubber, cotton, sugar cane, timber etc) whose prices have been falling steadily as compared to the prices of manufactured goods (Yuri Popov 1984:175).
In 1982, the prices of raw materials and farm produce of Africans fell to the lowest levels in the past thirty years.
5. Aid Dependency syndrome
The Aid dependency syndrome may well have contributed to the indebtedness of African countries and their growing poverty levels. Aid can be classified into three main types:
i) Humanitarian or emergency aid; given in response to natural disasters like fire, flood or to earthquake victims; ii) Charity-based aid, which normally comes from non-profit organisations and foundations countries hit by drought, famine, war, displaced people or refugees; iii) Systematic multi-lateral aid, which comes from the World Bank, Overseas Development Agency.
Unfortunately the systematic aid packages have often failed in achieving their goals of providing infrastructure, fighting poverty, disease, illiteracy and hunger, and building capacity for good governance in Africa (Tolu Ogunlesi 2013). Across the world, recipients of aid have become worse off. Aid has helped to make the poor poorer and made growth slower because of the dependency syndrome trap. Sixty years of three trillion dollars development aid to Third World countries, has little evidence of significant effect on recipients in fighting poverty, disease, hunger, illiteracy, unemployment and environmental degradation (Tolu Ogunlesi 2013).
Western countries engaged with African countries depending on what benefits are at stake. Western donor countries often turned a blink eye on corruption and gross human rights abuses in countries they depended on for their much needed raw materials. Systematic aid was used as bait in dealing with and winning the friendship of corrupt leaders in Africa, whose dealings with donors have further worsened the debt profile of African countries.
For example, despite the fact that Mobutu’s regime was repressive and corrupt, he still enjoyed the support of western governments (Martin Meredith 2006:307).
At the 54th Member African Union 23rd Summit in June 2014, in the Equatorial Guinea, a country that is an spoken critic of Western interference in African politics, the host President, Teodoro Obiang Nguema, urged African leaders to free their countries from dependency on the western nations and take control of their own politics, security, agriculture and the management of their resources (Tolu Ogunlesi 2013).
6. Rising cost of imports for African countries
The rising cost of imports is another disturbing cause of debt to African countries. The rising cost of imports like medicine, machinery, equipment, arms and ammunitions and other consumables coupled with the decreasing export earnings of African countries has worsened the level of indebtedness resulting in what has become known as the triangle of disaster – youth unemployment, rural poverty and environmental degradation (Bouchet 1987).
Edouard Saouma, Director-General of the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), said in 1983 that, ‘ten years ago, a country exporting a ton of tea received an income which enabled it to import 17 tons of fertilizers; today this will bring it only eight tons. Ten years ago a ton of bananas paid for a ton of steel; today it takes two tons of bananas’ (Yuri Popov 1984:175). Kondojoulou Dogo, Togo’s Minister of Planning, Industrial Development and Administrative Reform, stated in 1983 that, “We are chained to the world market and it dictates its terms to us. Twenty years ago, we could buy a bicycle by selling 10 kg of cocoa. Today, we need to sell 100 kg of cocoa to buy one”. The Minister stated that same thing was happening to their phosphates and other raw materials (Yuri Popov 1984:175).
7. Changes in the International Capital Market
A major cause of the African debt problem was the oil boom and the changes it provoked on the international capital market. The sharp and steady increase in the price of oil resulted in OPEC amassing ‘petrol-dollars’ in private banks in search of investment opportunities. Most African countries took advantage of these ‘petrol-dollars’ by taking more loans to undertake heavy infrastructural projects (Noah Komla Dzobo & Simon Amegashie-Viglo 2004:116).
These loans which they did not have the capacity to service, eventually increased their levels of indebtedness to the lending institutions.
Furthermore, the existence of the ‘petrol-dollars’ weakened the power of the industrialized western countries to match the flow of funds to Africa with the capacity to pay; a function that was traditionally played by the World Bank and the IMF. This lack of control provided African countries the freedom of taking loans they were not in the position to service (Bouchet 1987:40).
Finally, the deterioration of the Soviet-Union, the structure of development assistance to Africa also changed. Industrialized countries diversified their aid to meet new demands from the former Soviet-Union Bloc states in Africa (Alex Danso 1990).
8. Rises in Interest Rates
The extensive and excessive armament activities of the Ronald Reagan Administration couple with a tax-reduction policy in the US, induced investment recovery and change in the operating procedures of the Federal Reserve’s monetary policy with tighter restraints that led to a sharp increase in real interest rates and the value of the dollar. This development had a very devastating effect on African countries interest payment and import bills (Bouchet 1987).
Effects of the Debt Problem
A debt crisis occurs when a debtor proves unable to service its debt or when creditors refuse to lend to the debtor because it appears likely the debtor cannot honor its debt obligations. Generally, when investors discuss debt crises they are talking about international debts involving countries that are unwilling or unable to settle debts.
The effects of a debt crisis are numerous in both the country owing the debt and other nations. Rev Jesse Jackson has described Africa’s debt as ‘a new form of slavery as vicious as the slave trade’ Julius Nyerere, commenting on the effects of the debt problem in Africa, stated; “Must we starve our children to pay our debts” (Simon Amegashie-Viglo 2009:112).
Everyday people in Africa die from curable disease, poverty and hunger. The government cannot put money into helping these people because it must pay 15 Billion dollars a year in debt repayment to places like the World Bank and IMF.
African economic advances cannot be made when it must pay a shocking 1 billion dollars a day interest fee. These loans from organizations such as the World Bank are meant to aid the country during this economic crisis. These loans actually sabotage these African countries. Nigeria has borrowed 5 billion dollars from the World Bank. To date they have repaid 16 billion dollars. Shocking they still owe the bank 32 billion dollars in interest (Simon Amegashie-Viglo 2009:112).
Growing interference of the IMF and the World Bank in the affairs Africa
By far the most disturbing effect of the debt problem is the growing interference of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank in the affairs of African countries. African countries are compelled to accept structural adjustment programmes as a condition for qualifying for loans. This situation further compelled them to meet their debt obligations at the expense of their development. The debt crisis has made African countries dependent on external support in the form of loans, aid and grants to enable them service their debts.
African countries borrow money to pay their loans (Noah Komla Dzobo & Simon Amegashie-Viglo 2004:117).
As a result of the debt trap, African economies have become vulnerable to manipulation by international financial institutions especially the IMF and World Bank that tend to impose conditions like; massive retrenchment of labour, trade liberalisation, cumulative devaluation, privatisation of public enterprises, free entry for multi-national corporations, abolition of exchange, price and wage control, withdrawal of subsidies across board (even for health, education and agriculture), adoption of multi-party systems, credit squeeze and decentralisation of political power among others (Noah Komla Dzobo & Simon Amegashie-Viglo 2004:90).
Shortage of foreign exchange to meet the cost of imports
The debt servicing obligation has come to take away large portions of the scarce foreign exchange earned by African countries. This has resulted in the perpetual shortage of foreign exchange in Africa. Essential imports are foregone because of lack of foreign exchange. For example, medical supplies, spare-parts and machinery among others become difficult to obtain in the face of foreign exchange shortages. This may result in under capacity utilization since the necessary inputs cannot be imported because of foreign exchange constraints. Hence the rising levels of unemployment, poverty and environmental degradation.
Foreign exchange shortage has led to a reduction in per capita income, consumption and investment as well as lowering the standard of living of the citizens.
Lower Credit Rating
Countries grappling with debts they are unable to sustainably service, are pruned to lower credit rating among donor nations and agencies. This means creditor nations are reluctant to extend funding packages to such countries. When they decide to lend money to such debtor countries, they do so at much higher interest rates because such countries are considered high risk countries by creditors (Simon Amegashie-Viglo 2009:112).
According to UNCTAD, Africa received some $540 billion in loans between 1970 and 2002. Despite paying back close to $550 billion in principal and interest, it still had a debt stock of $295 billion to pay by the end of 2002. This situation affected the credit rating of most African countries (Simon Amegashie-Viglo 2009:119).
Cuts in critical social intervention expenditure
Creditors put pressure on debtor African countries to cut expenditure on critical social intervention and poverty reduction programmes like health, education, agriculture, unemployment benefits and pension payments. Such cuts in government expenditure often resulted in heightened social unrest and political instability like what happened in Nigeria when fuel subsidies were withdrawn (Tim Cocks & Joe Brock 2015).
For example, while more than 80 million Nigerians lived on less than one dollar per day in 2005, the country agreed to pay over $12 billion to the Paris Club of creditors in exchange for partial debt cancellation. In 2003, Zambia spent twice as much on debt repayments as on health care delivery (Simon Amegashie-Viglo 2009:120).
The G-8 and the Paris Club in 2004, failed to recognise the illegitimate nature of African debt. African governments are compelled to accept responsibility for paying billions of dollars of old illegitimate debts contracted under dubious conditions. There is overwhelming evidence that African countries have had to finance their debts through the imposition of austerity policies and measures directed at their social intervention services and subsidies for essential goods (Simon Amegashie-Viglo 2009:113).
Borrowing in order to service debts
As pointed out under causes, the incidence of borrowing to service debt is both a cause of debt as well as an effect of the debt crisis in Africa. Debt trap is indeed the vicious circle of taking international or domestic loans to service a county’s debts. For most African countries, the reality of high and rapidly increasing interest rates in the 1970s and 1980s had reached heights that were simply unsustainable for their comparatively weak economies. Debtor countries are also compelled to use disproportionately percentage of their export earning to pay their debts. Foreign aid and new loan from multilateral agencies are deployed to service their indebtedness. For example, Ethiopia had to use 45% of the country’s $783 export earning in 1996, on debt payment (Simon Amegashie-Viglo 2009:111).
Proposed African Solutions to the Debt Problem
1) A wide range of solutions have been proposed as a remedy to the debt problem of Africa. For example: The African Union (AU) Finance Ministers, under the authority of the African Heads of States and Governments, have suggested a stoppage of debt servicing to concentrate on the payment of principal of the loans, because debt servicing alone takes about 50% of all the foreign exchange earned by indebted African countries.
2) The AU Finance Ministers also proposed longer periods of moratorium of between five (5) to 10 years instead of the present two (2) to three (3) years.
3) Some of the debts due for payment should be rescheduled for longer periods. This will give African countries the chance to pay the debts one after the other instead of spreading the same amount over several debts. This would give African countries some breathing space in the business of paying their ever growing debts.
4) The African Union Finance Ministers also proposed the total cancellation of the debts owed by African countries or conversion of such loans to grants.
5) Another proposal is that there should be fair trade practices towards African countries and their Western trade partners. Africa’s trade partners should offer better and higher prices for the primary commodities from Africa. This would increase the foreign exchange earned by Africans and make them better able to meet their debt payment obligations. The Finance Ministers also proposed the steps should be taken to reduce the interest rates on loans, as well as increase the flow of resources to African countries (Noah Komla Dzobo & Simon Amegashie-Viglo 2004:117).
International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank Proposed Solutions to the African Debt Problem
The World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) have also proposed some solutions to the African debt problem which are stated below:
1) Reduction in their budget deficits by cutting public expenditure. This according to the IMF can be done by abolishing all subsidies on food, medicine, education, shelter and petroleum products.
2) Pursuit realistic foreign exchange rate policies. For instance, African currencies are over-valued and that they should be devalued to make their exports cheaper on the world market so that demand for them will rise. Imports will then reduce because their prices of their commodities will increase and the demands for domestic goods will rise. This proposal, in the opinion of the IMF will conserve foreign exchange for African countries.
3) Trade liberalisation as a remedy to debt, so that the burden of producing these goods would shift from government to individuals and private organisations and government expenditure would reduce considerably.
4) Granting of price incentives to traditional export producers to increase their production to earn more foreign exchange for their countries.
5) Higher interest rates to squeeze domestic credit facilities to encourage savings for development.
6) Privatisation of state owned enterprises, corporations, industries and government parastatals. According to the IMF and the World Bank, government participation in these areas has proved ineffective and costly because of the dependence on government for subvention in order to operate.
The IMF and the World Bank proposal for economic recovery for Africa is referred to as the “Structural Adjustment Programme (SAP)” whilst the African alternative proposal is called the African Alternative Framework for Economic Recovery and Development (AAFERD) (Noah Komla Dzobo & Simon Amegashie-Viglo 2004:118).
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By Simon Amegashie-Viglo
Ho Technical University, Ho, Ghana.