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An unsustainable burden of debt afflicts the peoples of Sub-Saharan Africa. Part 5

In Sub-Saharan Africa, where health spending and human development levels are in a dramatic state, there is a stronger case than ever for unilateral suspensions of debt payments based on arguments recognized in international law; such as state of necessity and fundamental change of circumstances. This is a sine qua non condition for urgently reallocating public expenditure and creating the means to relieve certain effects of the pandemic. Such a suspension of payments must spur governments to take further steps to liberate human development, namely to move away from the neo-liberal framework while repudiating debts identified, through a process of citizen debt auditing, as illegitimate.

In the first three parts we have observed the evolution of the DCs’ external debt over the last twenty years. The first part shows a dramatic increase of indebtedness, which multiplied by 2.5 with a steep acceleration from 2008 onward. The second part highlights the main threats on the DCs’ external debt, among which the growing significance of bonds, the evolution of interest rates and the depreciation of their currencies against the U.S. dollar. The third part examines the various factors that lure DCs into the debt trap: dependence on commodities, drop in foreign exchange reserves, inflating repayments, conjuncture of a multi-dimensional crisis aggravated by the COVID-19 pandemic, etc.

We deepen our analysis by focusing on various regions, After Latin America and the Caribbean we continue with sub-Saharan Africa.

1. All DCs – General focus

Graph 1: Comparison between loaned and repaid amounts per year (long-term total external debt–in billions of US$))

Graph 2: Comparison of the evolution of total debt stock with net transfers (long-term total external debt–in billions of US$))

Echoing table 1 in our first part, graph 1 compares borrowed amounts (in orange) and repaid amounts (in blue–also called debt servicing) on long-term total external debt per year. Graph 2 presents the evolution of the debt stock (in orange–scale on the right) and of net transfers (in blue–scale on the left).

As formerly mentioned, from 2000 to 2006, debt servicing outreached borrowed amounts while the debt stock increased only moderately. Net transfer was generally negative. In the following period from 2008 to 2019 net transfer became positive. We can notice an exception in 2015, when commodity prices plummeted. On the whole both debt stock and debt servicing have increased dramatically.

2. Sub-Saharan Africa

In 2019, the population of Sub-Saharan Africa (where all countries are developing countries) was 1.107 million.

The 48 countries:1

  • 23 low-income countries: Burkina Faso, Burundi, Central African Republic, Chad, Democratic Republic of Congo, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Gambia, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Liberia, Madagascar, Malawi, Mali, Mozambique, Niger, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Somalia, Sudan, (with South Sudan),2 Togo, Uganda
  • 25 middle-income countries: Angola, Benin, Botswana, Cameroon, Cape Verde, Comoros, Congo, Côte d’Ivoire, Eswatini (formerly Swaziland), Gabon, Ghana, (Equatorial Guinea), Kenya, Lesotho, (Mauritius), Mauritania, (Namibia), Nigeria, Sao Tome and Principe, Senegal, (Seychelles), South Africa, Tanzania, Zambia, Zimbabwe.

Note that the WB classification can be questioned. However, we decided to use it to accommodate easier use of WB data. For a critical approach to the categories used by international institutions, see: ‘South/North/Developing Countries/Developed Countries–What is it all about?’ https://www.cadtm.org/South-North-Developing-Countries-Developed-Countries-What-is-it-all-about.

Graph 3: Comparison of the evolution of total debt stock with net transfers (long-term total external debt–in billions of US$)

In the graph above, we can see the two stages previously referred to, with a reduction of debts from 2004 to 2006 corresponding to an increase in revenues along with an increase in commodity prices. For this region in particular, one must also take into account the HIPC initiative launched in 1996, an initiative that “cancels” 90% or more of non-ODA bilateral external debt (see Box 1) under the constraint of austerity policies imposed by the IMF. Of the 38 countries concerned, 34 are in Sub-Saharan Africa. It should be noted that 25 years after its launch, Eritrea and Sudan have still not seen this conditional cancellation applied, mainly because of payment arrears to the Bretton Woods institutions. From 2006 onward, public external debt increased moderately before spiraling out of control from 2008. We may also distinguish four categories of creditors:

  • in blue: bilateral creditors (loans between States);
  • in yellow: multilateral creditors outside the IMF (loans from international financial institutions such as the World Bank and Development Banks);
  • in red: loans from the IMF;3
  • in green: private creditors; (dark green, loans on financial markets as sovereign bonds mostly sold on Wall Street; khaki, bank loans; light green, loans from other types of private creditors).
Box 1: Who profits from Official Development Assistance? (ODA)

Creditors ODA–Creditors non ODA

In the bilateral Part of official external debt, a distinction is made between so-called ODA (Official Development Assistance) claims, with a low interest rate (also called ’concessional loans’), and so-called non-ODA claims, with interest rates corresponding to those set by the financial markets. Under the terms determined by the Paris Club, non-ODA claims can be written off in whole or in part, while ODA claims are restructured.4

Official assistance to… whom?

According to the OECD, ODA goes to all low- and middle-income countries as defined by the World Bank, with the exception of G8 countries (such as Russia) and the European Union.5 ODA is provided by the 306 member countries of the OECD Development Assistance Committee (DAC).

In its current form, however, ODA poses more problems than it solves.

First, the amount. Since 1970 DAC members committed themselves to devote a minimum of 0.7% of their gross national income (GNI) to ODA, this threshold has never been reached. In 2019, total ODA was estimated at $155 billion, i.e. 0.3% of DAC GNI.7 This amount pales in comparison with the $485 billion remitted by the diasporas to DCs during the same period (see part 3 of the series, “Developing countries in the stranglehold of debt”).

Second, its composition. Contrary to what its title would suggest, ODA is not unconditional, disinterested and “humanistarian” aid. It is composed of grants but also of so-called “concessional loans”. It is therefore not uncommon for the annual net transfer of ODA for a “recipient” country to be negative. Similarly, the country is not free to use these sums as it sees fit, but is subject to a programme defined by the donor countries and/or international institutions.

Even more so, its accounting rules that have evolved over the years: Military ’aid’ and export credits, which have been repeatedly denounced by human rights organisations, have finally been excluded from ODA figures.8 On the other hand, technical cooperation, tied aid, debt relief, scholarships granted to DC residents studying in DAC countries, as well as expenditure related to the reception of asylum seekers (including detention costs) may be counted as such. Problems: on the one hand, these sums do not represent a real transfer of money from the North to the South, while on the other hand, these expenses constitute, for the most part, obligations for states under international law anyway.

Finally, its opacity. According to the data provided by the OECD, it is not possible to separate aid in the form of grants from aid in the form of loans. In order to artificially inflate its figures, the OECD has created a “grant-equivalent” category that includes not only said grants, but also low-interest loans with a long repayment period in order to supposedly better “reflect the real effort made by donor countries”.9 They must be joking.

See also the 2003 article by Damien Millet, “L’initiative PPTE : entre illusion et arnaque”: https://www.cadtm.org/L-initiative-PPTE-entre-illusion-et-arnaque (in French)

Graph 4: Comparison between the evolution of the total debt stock and of the net transfers on the public external debt for Sub-Saharan Africa (in $billion)

Remember that net transfer refers to the difference between what a country receives as loans and what it pays out in debt servicing (capital and interests included). If the amount is negative that country has paid out more than it has received.

In the graph columns in orange refer to net transfer.

From 2000 to 2019, the region’s public external debt multiplied by 2.43. Over the same period the net transfer was positive (+$217.54 billion). From 2000 to 2006 net transfer was negative to the tune of $19.35 billion, i.e. 2.15% of the region’s DCs GDP in 2006. Financial crises in the North and capital flowing to countries of the South largely account for the positive net transfer over the following years (see part 1).

DCs’ public external debt in 2000: $171 billion
DCs’ public external debt in 2019: $415 billion

DCs in the region with a high risk of over-indebtedness in February 2021:10 Cameroon, Cap vert, Central African Republic, Chad, Djibouti, Ethiopia, Ghana, Mauritania, Sierra Leone.

DCs in the region in suspension of payment in February 2021: Congo, Eritrea, Gambia, Mozambique, São Tomé & Principe, Somalia, Sudan, South Sudan, Zambia, Zimbabwe.

Over twenty years these countries borrowed $40.8 billion from the IMF and have since reimbursed $21.8 billion, of which, 19% is interest and fees

It is revealing of how critical these countries economic situation is that while their GNP tripled between 2000 and 2008 (from $395 billion to $1.208 billion), it increased no more than 50% between 2008 and 2019 ($1.751 billion), with a sharp contraction in 2015-2016 echoing the end of the period of commodity market buoyancy.

The number of countries that have called on the IMF for funds over the same period is also telling. Forty-seven of them did so, in other words all of them except Eritrea, which has been awaiting HIPC measures since 1996. Over twenty years these countries borrowed $40.8 billion from the IMF and have since reimbursed $21.8 billion, of which, 19% is interest and fees.

Sub-Saharan Africa is the region of the World that is the hardest hit by the IMF and its austerity policies imposed through structural adjustment plans since the 1980s, the HIPC initiative since 1996 and since April 2020 the Debt Service Suspension Initiative (DSSI). Among the worst hit countries are Côte d’Ivoire, Madagascar, Niger, Senegal, Congo (Democratic Republic) Togo11 and numerous Central African countries.12

Box 2: International Institutions’ measures for debt “relief” in response to the COVID-19 pandemic

The COVID-19 crisis has severely hit the World’s economies, especially those of developing countries, Sub-Saharan Africa is no exception, far from it. Without going into extensive detail of the emergency measures put into place by International Financial Institutions (IFI)13 note that the Sub-Saharan countries are the most affected by the DSSI and the Common Debt Framework launched by the G20 at the call of the World Bank and the IMF respectively in April and October 2020.

Of the 73 countries that would eventually be eligible, 27 Sub-Saharan countries have requested DSSI relief but only three, Chad, Ethiopia and Zambia have asked for Common Debt Framework assistance.

As is usual with the IFIs, all so called relief is conditioned by the application of IMF austerity measures.14

In absolute values, the foreign debt of Sub-Saharan DCs has followed the same course as the general course that DCs’ foreign debt has followed, with a rapid acceleration of indebtedness from 2008.

On the other hand what is distinctive of the region’s foreign debt is the nature of its creditors. First particularity is that the bilateral part although declining is still a full quarter of the total.
At one time largely preponderant, the Paris club members have seen their part dwindle to the advantage of, in particular, China which has become the principal creditor for the region. The multilateral part has remained fairly stable, varying between 36% and 42% over the period, with the IMF continuing to be well involved.

The second particularity is the part in bonds. Although increasing, it has still not come to the levels of the rest of the World (see other parts). There are two elements that explain this: a number of these countries are low income countries and the rating accorded by the notation agencies very often makes their borrowing conditions on the financial markets prohibitive. Those countries that do manage to borrow on the financial markets do so at high interest and costs, around 5.75 %, plus risk premiums.

Table 1: Evolution of the public external debt of Sub-Saharan African countries by category of creditors between 2000 and 2019, in absolute and relative value

2000 2010 2019
In bn $US In % In bn $US In % In bn $US In %
Bilateral part 80.73 47.19 45.63 25.59 100.51 24.23
Multilateral part Multilateral creditors 54.27 31.73 58.37 32.74 123.63 29.81
IMF 8.70 5.08 19.33 10.84 22.81 5.50
Private part Bonds 10.11 5.91 30.47 17.09 109.10 26.30
Private banks 8.47 4.95 20.30 11.38 49.56 11.95
Other private creditors 8.79 5.14 4.18 2.35 9.15 2.21
Total 171.08 100 178.28 100 414.76 100

Eighty-nine percent of the countries in the region are economically dependent on commodity exports;15 eighteen countries are dependent on the export of agricultural products; eight are dependent on fossil fuel exports; seventeen on mining ores. Some, such as Ghana, which exports cacao and gold, are exporters in several categories.

Table 2: Commodity export dependence of Sub-Saharan African countries16

agricultural products Fossil fuels Ores
1. Benin,
2. Central African Republic,
3. Comoros,
4. Cote d’Ivoire,
5. Ethiopia,
6. Djibouti,
7. Gambia,
8. Guinea-Bissau,
9. Kenya,
10. Madagascar,
11. Malawi,
12. Maldives,
13. São Tomé and Principe,
14. Senegal,
15. Seychelles,
16. Somalia
17. Uganda,
18. Zimbabwe
1. Angola,
2. Cameroon,
3. Chad,
4. Congo Republic,
5. Equatorial Guinea,
6. Gabon,
7. Nigeria,
8. Sudan
1. Botswana,
2. Burkina Faso,
3. Burundi,
4. Congo (Democratic Republic),
5. Ghana,
6. Guinea,
7. Liberia,
8. Mali,
9. Mauritania,
10. Mozambique,
11. Namibia,
12. Niger,
13. Rwanda,
14. Sierra Leone,
15. Tanzania,
16. Togo,
17. Zambia

In the period between 1st March 2020 and 1st January 2021,17 countries of the region had their currencies sharply depreciated against the U.S. dollar and the euro, i.e. the main foreign exchange reserves. True, twenty-five currencies did gain value against the dollar but mostly, because of their fixed parity rates (notably the 15 countries of the Franc CFA zones, that gain no real advantage from their situation).18 The others depreciated between 0.04% and 78.05 %. The average depreciation was 11.5 %. Against the euro and not counting fixed parities, except for Liberian money which gained 7.90%, the currencies lost between 4.95% and 80.37%, on average 16.76 %.

It should also be noted that under pressure from the IMF, and its creditors in order to see, after 25 years, the HIPC initiative implemented, Sudan devalued its currency on 21 February 2021. By aligning the Sudanese pound to the black market rate, reducing its value from 55 pounds for 1 U.S. dollar to 375 pounds for 1 U.S. dollar, Sudan again bowed to its creditors and the IMF. This is another example of the political blackmail inherent in the debt system. This devaluation sounds like another blow to the people, who will see the cost of servicing the debt rise, as well as the prices of a range of essential imported foodstuffs.19 It was the high cost of bread that started the popular movement that eventually led to the overthrow of President Omar El Béchir on 11 April 2019.

Graph 5. Debt service for DCs in the Sub-Saharan Africa region (US$ billion))

In the space of two decades, the region’s debt service has reached new records, quadrupling from $9.87 billion to$34.13 billion, with a peak $37.48 billion in 2018. In 2019, more than 60% of these DCs spent more on debt service than on health expenditure. Debt servicing in these 10 countries absorbed between 5.3% and 42.6% of government revenue.20

Box 3: Sub-Saharan African poverty in figures21
In 2019 Sub-Saharan Africa Developing countries
Cause of death by communicable
diseases and conditions associated
with pregnancy, childbirth and nutrition
(% of population)
53.67 21.25 18.41
Incidence of malaria
(per 1,000 persons at risk)
219.13 57.59 57.43
Incidence of tuberculosis
(per 100.000 people)
226.00 152.00 130.00
Life expectancy
at birth
61.26 71.00 72.56
Infant mortality rate
under 5s (per thousand)
75.75 40.98 37.70
Maternal mortality 200 000 293 000 295 000
Number of deaths
of under 5s
2 843 088 5 125 492 5 188 872
Prevalence of undernourishment
(% of population)
17.54 9.74 8.90
Prevalence of severe food
insecurity in the population (%)
20.2 10.9 9.4
Population living on less
than $1.90 a day (in %)
40.2 16.9 9.2
Sub-Saharan Africa is the region of the World most affected by poverty. In all respects the living conditions of the people of Sub-Saharan Africa are much lower than anywhere else.


Sub-Saharan African countries’ foreign public debt has very much increased. The current worldwide economic crisis makes it ever more difficult for these countries, many of which are in situations of overindebtedness or already in default, to continue on established debt repayment schedules. The latest payment default country is Zambia in November 2020.

Even if, according to official data,22 the region seems to be less touched than elsewhere by the COVID-19 pandemic, the figures are rising steeply, aggravated by the South-African variant and the lack of vaccines.23 The region is badly hit by other diseases such as malaria, tuberculosis, VIH, diarrheal diseases, and, cases of Ebola have again been identified in Guinea and Congo (Democratic Republic).24

In a region where health spending and human development levels are in dramatic condition, even compared to other developing countries,25 there is a stronger case than ever for unilateral suspensions of debt payments based on arguments recognized in international law, such as state of necessity and fundamental change of circumstances. This is a sine qua non condition for urgently reallocating public expenditure and creating the means to relieve some consequences of the pandemic. Such suspensions of payments must spur governments to take further steps to liberate human development, namely to move away from the neo-liberal framework while repudiating debts identified, through a process of citizen debt auditing, as illegitimate.

Further articles in this series will examine the tendencies of the debt burden in other regions of the global South. Translated by Snake Arbusto, Vicki Briault, Mike Krolikowski and Christine Pagnoulle (CADTM)


  1. The countries in brackets are not included in WB debt related data.
  2. WB data concerning South Sudan is incorporated into Sudan data, without distinction.
  3. Although it is also, a multilateral creditor, the IMF is not included in the WB data base.
  4. Explanations are available here: clubdeparis.org
  5. www.oecd.org and www.oecd.org
  6. www.oecd.org
  7. www.oecd.org
  8. For more details see: Eric Toussaint, “A qui profite l’Aide publique au développement”, April 2004. Available at: www.cadtm.org (in French)
  9. www.oecd.org
  10. List of LIC DSAs for PRGT-Eligible Countries as of January 31, 2021: www.imf.org
  11. See, PFDD, “Club de Paris, Comment sont restructurées les dettes souveraines et pourquoi une alternative est nécessaire”, p.31, March 2020 available at dette-developpement.org (in French)
  12. See Jean Nanga, 12 May 2017: Afrique centrale: Retour à l’ajustement structurel néolibéral et mobilisations populaires, www.cadtm.org
  13. For an in depth analysis of the DSSI and the Common Debt Framework, see Milan Rivié, “6 months after the official announcements of debt cancellation for the countries of the South: Where do we stand?”, 17 September 2020, www.cadtm.org and CADTM International, “www.cadtm.org,” 16 October 2020
  14. See Daniel Munevar, d3n8a8pro7vhmx.cloudfront.net, Eurodad, October 2020
  15. UNCTAD, State of commodity dependence 2019, p. 3-4.
  16. Ibid.
  17. According to Fxtop.com, 17 February 2021: fxtop.com
  18. For in depth analyses of the CFA Franc see Fanny Pigeaud and Ndongo Samba Sylla, L’arme invisible de la Françafrique, Une histoire du franc CFA, La Découverte. (in French)
  19. “Sudan’s Central Bank Announces Currency Unification Amid Plummeting RatesL R,” 21 February 2021, sputniknews.com
  20. Jubilee Debt Campaign, “Comparing debt payments with health spending”, April 2010: jubileedebt.org.uk
  21. All data is WB data: databank.worldbank.org
  22. See WHO Twitter account for Africa region, twitter.com
  23. The Economist, ‘Africa faces major obstacles to accessing Covid vaccines’, 25 January 2021: www.eiu.com
  24. Laurence Caramel, “Le virus Ebola réapparaît en Guinée et en RDC”, 16 February 2021, Le Monde: www.lemonde.fr (in French)
  25. See Milan Rivié, “Dette et Coronavirus: L’Afrique pourra-t-elle se prémunir des effets délétères du système capitaliste et des politiques néolibérales ?”, 1st April 2020, available at: www.cadtm.org (in French)
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