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The Africa Confidential Blog

  • 19th November 2020

ZAMBIA: Unblocking the debt impasse

Blue Lines

Zambia ran out of road on 13 November when its debt negotiations hit an impasse and it became the first African country to default since the Covid-19 pandemic hit the continent's economies. The crisis could also force a more coordinated response from the G20, the Paris Club of official creditors and commercial lenders. On 20 November, the G20 finance ministers are to meet to produce a more considered plan.

Zambia's case with US$12 billion of debt is particular and complex at the same time. Well before the pandemic, President Edgar Lungu's government was heading for an economic crash. The desperate secrecy surrounding its borrowings from China's development banks and commercial companies was a symptom of a wider malaise. It makes resolving the crisis far more difficult, pitting one set of creditors against another.

Zambia framed its request for an interest freeze as part of the G20's Debt Service Suspension Initiative, arguing that it was making the same demand of all its foreign creditors, including private lenders. Holders of Zambia's $3bn of Eurobonds think otherwise. They suspect the government wants to pay all its arrears to China's lenders before the start of more general debt restructuring talks. Equally, Chinese lenders don't want any debt relief they offer to be used to benefit wealthy lenders in Europe and the United States. It's a messy mix of geopolitics and commercial calculation. The core elements to support serious negotiations – transparency and a credible national recovery plan – are not on the table.