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Vol 60 No 25

Published 19th December 2019


Pouring cold water on the mega dam

Behind closed doors, the fight over the scale of the Inga dam could be edging towards resolution

Félix Tshisekedi's arrival in the presidential palace has brought new complications to Inga III, the gargantuan planned hydroelectric dam on the Congo River, but may yet give the long-delayed project a refreshed sense of direction.


The president, who assumed office in January, has a different vision for the scheme than that supported by officials he inherited from his predecessor, Joseph Kabila, and the two sides are battling it out (AC Vol 60 No 3, A day of portents). Former opposition leader Tshisekedi is governing Congo-Kinshasa in partnership with Kabila after the latter's allies won thumping majorities in both chambers of parliament. The former head of state, who now lives quietly on his ranch outside Kinshasa, has installed loyalists in key ministries such as finance, mines and defence, constraining Tshisekedi's ability to act independently (AC Vol 60 No 6, Kabila corners Tshisekedi & Vol 60 No 19, Of puppets and godfathers).  

Despite being blessed with immense hydroelectric potential, Congo-K suffers from crippling energy shortages. Only around 10% of the population of about 80 million is connected to the national grid, while the mining sector – the country's sole source of export earnings – is forced to rely on expensive auxiliary power sources such as diesel-run generators and electricity imports from Zambia.  

Two dams built more than three decades ago – Inga I and II – still provide most of the country's power. Successive presidents have dreamed of Inga III, to be constructed on the same stretch of the Congo River near the city of Matadi, as not just the antidote to Congo-K's problems but a plentiful source of electricity to the African continent.  

True believers say the next plant will be the first in an enormous complex to be known as Grand Inga and will generate more than 40,000 megawatts upon completion. Sceptics, of which there are many, predict that Inga III will never become a reality.

Despite launching Inga III more than a decade ago, it was only in the last three months of Kabila's 18 years in power that commercial developers of the project were finally appointed (AC Vol 54 No 13, The real power politics). In October last year, Bruno Kapandji, the director of the Agence pour le Développement et la Promotion du Projet Grand Inga (ADPI), signed an accord with Chinese and Spanish consortiums who agreed to finance technical and environmental studies before building and operating an 11,000 MW facility at a cost of nearly US$18 billion.  

Originally rivals competing for Inga III, the Chinese group, led by China Three Gorges Corporation, and the Spanish, comprising Actividades de Construcción y Servicios (ACS) and AEE Power Holdings, were ordered by Kapandji in 2017 to work together on a joint bid – to the irritation of both (AC Vol 58 No 14, Action plan to crack the Inga enigma). The shotgun marriage partners submitted a joint proposal last November assuming that Kabila's handpicked successor Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary would win December's election and swiftly move to award them a concession contract (AC Vol 60 No 3, A day of portents).  

But Shadary, a former interior minister under European Union sanctions, performed so dismally that neither Kabila nor the heavily compromised electoral commission felt able to proclaim him the winner. Instead, the outgoing president struck a deal to make Tshisekedi president in order to exclude the true victor, Martin Fayulu, who was backed by some of Kabila's fiercest enemies.  

The alliance between Tshisekedi and Kabila got off to a slow start with the men unable to agree on the composition of a power-sharing government until August, during which time Inga III was at a standstill. The Chinese and Spanish companies, not knowing where the new leader stood on the joint bid, grew nervous and frustrated.  

While Tshisekedi hasn't (yet) replaced Kabila's appointees at ADPI, he has instructed the department to report to Michel Eboma Ablavi, the president's chief advisor on mining and energy.

Developer fears
Chinese and Spanish fears grew shortly before the new government was revealed when Eboma hosted an energy conference in Matadi. There, Maximilien Munga, a senior energy ministry official held in high regard by Congo-K's multilateral and bilateral donors, insisted that the country should return to a previous design of Inga III which will generate 4,800 MW (AC Vol 54 No 13, The real power politicsDam good connections & Vol 55 No 7, Hitch for dam plan).  

Munga argued that the African Development Bank had already financed comprehensive studies for the smaller version which could be built faster and cheaper. Even under the most optimistic scenarios, the larger facility won't be finished until the end of the next decade. Tshisekedi expressed his support for Munga's view during his first address to parliament on 13 December. But he left an opening to Kabila and ADPI by saying the capacity could be enlarged to 11,000 MW in two later phases. Another supporter is Akinwumi Adesina, head of the AfDB, who has a close rapport with Congo-K's new leader. 'The 4,800 MW business plan is already done and paid for,' Adesina told Bloomberg last month. 'People need electricity today, not in 10 years.' 

Kenyan opposition leader Raila Odinga, the African Union's first High Representative for Infrastructure Development, will also play a role. He was close to Tshisekedi's father, Etienne Tshisekedi, who was a thorn in the side of every Congolese president from the 1980s until his death in 2017, and now enjoys good relations with Tshisekedi fils. Odinga is likely to swing the AU behind Tshisekedi's preferred trajectory for Inga III. 

The shift in thinking is a gut-punch for Inga III's Chinese and Spanish co-developers, who don't believe a 4,800 MW plant would be economically viable and lobbied hard to bring Kapandji around to their view. The October 2018 accord was their big breakthrough – or so they thought. The version of Inga III being sold to potential investors by the two consortiums envisages only 2,500-3,000 MW being distributed within Congo-K itself, much of which would be allocated to the energy-hungry mines and processing plants operated by the likes of Glencore and China Molybdenum. Most of the power would be sold to South Africa and others, such as Angola.  

South Africa agreed to buy 2,500 MW in 2013, which would then have been more than half of the available power, and last December told Kapandji it was willing to double that commitment under certain conditions. Last month, Angola also expressed an interest in acquiring up to 5,000 MW from Inga III. Having worked so hard to persuade Kapandji, the South Africans and the Angolans of the virtues of the expanded facility, the Chinese and Spanish efforts may have been for nothing if Tshisekedi forges ahead with a scaled back project – especially if he discards them in favour of new developers. 

So profound is the absence of coordination between the presidency and the government that both conceptions of Inga III are being promoted at the same time by their various supporters. Tshisekedi's recent affirmation of the vision he supports may not be the last, even though it is now official national policy.   

The President's lack of enthusiasm for their design is not the only obstacle facing the Chinese and Spanish co-developers. Not least is the question of where the $18bn would come from – a huge investment in a country where the government struggles to raise $5bn annually to support its meagre public expenditure. Some 80% of the bigger Inga III would have been financed through debt, according to documents prepared by the partners last year, which foresaw international finance institutions, including the AfDB, export-credit agencies and commercial banks being the funders. 

The Spanish companies had hoped that Kabila's departure would persuade the World Bank to return to the fold and boost international confidence in the project. The Bank pulled $73m in funding for Inga III studies in 2016 after the former president set up ADPI under his direct control, breaking lending rules. The Bank hasn't changed its mind, however. This leaves Tshisekedi putting a lot of faith in the ability of the AfDB to help raise enough money. 

Further rifts exist within the Sino-Spanish partnership and between them and the ADPI. The Chinese and Spanish companies never wanted to work together and their differing corporate cultures have clashed. China Three Gorges wrote to Kapandji in September to complain about ACS and AEE, stating they wouldn't agree with the Chinese on key aspects of the project. China Three Gorges 'remains ready to actively cooperate with the Congolese party to develop Inga III' but didn't see the point in meeting again with the Spanish, it said.

Contractor spooked
The position of ACS, one of the largest construction companies in the world, appears ambiguous. Spooked by Congo-K's reputation for corruption as well as allegations that Inga III will cause environmental damage, ACS began to tell certain shareholders a year ago that it was withdrawing from the project, we hear. However, senior ACS managers have apparently participated in meetings in the course of this year with the Chinese companies and ADPI. Africa Confidential understands that there is a tussle going on at ACS between a risk-averse board of directors and more gung-ho engineers on the ground. If the former comes out on top, as one would expect, it will be a major setback for the Spanish consortium. 

Even if, somehow, the 11,000 MW iteration triumphs and the consortia remain aligned, a scrap is brewing with ADPI over the allocation of power from the plant. The country's civil society organisations have long scorned both schemes, mostly because of their improbable scale.  A coalition of 41 groups asked Tshisekedi in November to pause Inga III. Among the 'enormous risks' cited were the lack of preparations for resettling more than 37,000 people, environmental damage caused by altering the riverbed and indebting the country for years to come. 

ADPI has dismissed the criticisms as embittered and erroneous but is sensitive to claims that ordinary Congolese won't benefit enough from hosting such a monumental project. The agency counters that 6,000 MW (double the 3,000 MW proposed by the co-developers) will be allocated to Congo-K – to be split between the mines, other industry and domestic consumers. ADPI claims the domestic portion isn't up for negotiation but it remains to be seen if the Chinese and Spanish will be willing to be so exposed to a population with such weak purchasing power and to the effectively bankrupt state power utility, the Société nationale d'électricité (SNEL).

US interest
Appearing on the horizon is the United States, which has exceedingly warm ties with Tshisekedi, in stark contrast to the animosity that characterised relations with Kabila. In keeping with President Donald Trump's combative policy towards President Xi Jinping's government, the US State and Energy Departments have been tentatively dipping their toes into Inga III, seemingly pondering if they can loosen China's grip on the project. 

Africa Confidential understands, however, that the US won't formally welcome a high-level Inga III delegation from the presidency and government to Washington DC until Congo-K has implemented certain regulatory benchmarks. The appetite of US companies for getting involved in such an ambitious development in a country with Congo-K's track record is doubtful.  

Progress is minimal in the meantime and Tshisekedi's pledge to bring electricity to at least 30% of the population by the end of his term in 2023 looks increasingly unlikely. Instead of wasting so much energy on a time- and capital-consuming prestige project like Inga III, many – including the World Bank – would prefer the president to focus on smaller hydro plants and solar power.  

Local and foreign entrepreneurs have already jumped at the opportunity. Earlier this year, two prominent Congolese businessmen, Yves Kabongo and Eric Monga, signed separate deals with China's Power Construction Corp to build hydroelectric plants of 900 MW and 150 MW respectively to serve the country's southeastern mines. In the east, British solar company BBOXX is providing off-grid power to tens of thousands of homes.  

Thinking small may yet turn out to be the best option for the country but whether its leaders and donors can agree is something else entirely.

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