Kenya wants China to extend $7 billion debt repayment

Joint projects such as the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport toll station in Nairobi, add to the country's debt burden. PHOTO: REUTERS

NAIROBI – Kenya plans to ask China for a longer repayment period on US$5 billion (S$7 billion) of loans it used to build a railway, Transport Secretary-designate Kipchumba Murkomen said.

Servicing the Export-Import Bank of China loans, which mature in 15 to 20 years, is choking the economy, Mr Murkomen told lawmakers on Wednesday at a confirmation hearing in the capital, Nairobi.

“If we can manage to renegotiate to 50 years, then it will ease the burden” and enable the government to use money for other parts of the economy, he said. “We are choked by loans.”

Kenya is at high risk of debt distress and reducing its vulnerability is a central goal of a 38-month International Monetary Fund-supported programme announced earlier this year. The country’s debt stood at 8.58 trillion shillings (S$101 billion) in June, equivalent to 67.8 per cent of gross domestic product, according to the National Treasury.

The rail line, part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative, is Kenya’s biggest infrastructure project since the country gained independence from Britain in 1963. It links Nairobi with the port of Mombasa, East Africa’s largest harbour.

Kenya Railways was scheduled to start operating the project in June, after taking over from Africa Star Railway Operation, a subsidiary of China Road and Bridge, to reduce operating costs.

Mr Murkomen said the use of short-term capital to build long-term projects such as railways resulted in a funding mismatch. The railway has yet to break even, he said. 

“It becomes impossible to be able to pay that loan from revenue that comes from the railways,” he said. “Even in 50 years, it will never break even.”

Many African countries watched debt restructuring talks between China and borrowers Angola and Zambia to gauge what may happen if they request similar treatment, according to Ms Oyintarelado Moses, a data analyst at the Boston University’s Global China Initiative. 

“African countries are not just grappling with Chinese debt repayment, because African countries overall owe more to private sector creditors than to China,” she said. They are “having to juggle debt repayment to all their creditors, including Chinese creditors”.

Of the US$696 billion owed by African nations by the end of 2020, 35 per cent was to private creditors excluding those in China, and 12 per cent by both private and public Chinese lenders, according to Britain-based Debt Justice, which lobbies for poor countries’ loans to be written off.  BLOOMBERG

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