Tuesday, July 6, 2021

The Road to Who Knows Where: What one highway project in Cameroon can tell us about the complexities of Chinese lending in Africa

This post is by former CARI Research Assistant Alex Hardin and CARI Director Deborah Brautigam. Alex Hardin is now an M&E Associate at Winrock International.

Photo credit: The Taxi Photographer via Wikimedia Commons
Narratives of China’s lending to Africa are often oversimplified, focusing on the Belt and Road initiative writ large, and leveling accusations of “debt-trap diplomacy.” Yet, a peek beneath the surface reveals an increasingly complex web of Chinese financiers and contractors, African government planning and finance bodies, and numerous other infrastructure agencies. Each project reveals a story that both complicates the reductively simple narrative and helps to paint a clearer portrait of the process by which these projects are realized.

One such story is that of the first phase of a Cameroonian highway construction effort intended to link the country’s political capital, Yaoundé, to its economic center, Douala, by way of another major metropolitan hub in Edéa. To this end, in the first phase, as described by a project overview from the Ministry of Economy, Planning, and Regional Development (MINEPAT), Cameroon set out to construct a road between Yaoundé and Bot-Makak, a town approximately one third of the way toward the ultimate endpoint in Douala. To finance construction works, the Government of Cameroon signed a loan with Eximbank China in the form of a preferential export buyer’s credit (PEBC) worth US$482,800,000 on March 8, 2012. China First Highway Engineering Co., Ltd. (CFHEC) was selected to build the project. From this point on, progress would be anything but straightforward.

In December 2013, China Eximbank made its first disbursement of US$96,560,000. Yet the start of construction was unexpectedly delayed by the  Cameroonian authorities, who intervened at this late date to modify the project specifications by raising the speed limit from 100 km/hour to 110 km/hour as well as increasing the number of planned lanes. This, in turn, led the contractor to warn that the budgeted project cost would allow for construction of only 47 of the contracted 68 kilometers, if built under the new stipulations. 

On March 27, 2014, the Chinese Embassy’s Economic and Commercial Office posted a commentary on the project on its website (in Chinese). The commentary explained that the highway had been originally designed to meet Chinese standards for highway construction. The decision by the Cameroonian authorities would bring the road in line with French standards, which are closer to Cameroonian requirements. The Embassy further remarked that China hoped to see its counterparts in Cameroon (i.e. the Minister of Public Works) provide feedback on the final technical standards of the project as soon as possible, hinting at a growing frustration at the sudden adoption of specifications that differed from those originally negotiated. Adding to the air of exasperation, the author underscored a desire that Cameroon identify its “sole interlocutor” for the project, which it deemed necessary “because several ministries and commissions of the Cameroonian government are involved in the project at the same time”. The author assured readers that Cameroon had promised an official start date before April 15, 2014, despite lingering issues over land acquisition and compensation, a responsibility of the Cameroon side. 

That optimism was misplaced. Work on the project finally began sometime in the first quarter of 2015 and was scheduled for completion in 2018. However, progress was continually beset by obstacles. Chief among these were delays in compensating residents whose property fell along the proposed route. Cameroon’s defaults and restructuring of Chinese loans in 2019 also affected the project. 

After making six disbursements amounting to US$202,675,284 up through October 29, 2019, the Chinese bank had stopped disbursements. “Yaoundé does not present any repayment guarantee,” a well-placed source said. China Eximbank proposed a new repayment guarantee mechanism, of an unclear nature. Yaoundé had not yet signed it as of October 2020. For all these setbacks, however, work on the 60km section of road was reported to have reached a “physical execution rate” of 91% by the start of 2021. 

The Chinese contractor is bearing the cost of the delay—each day of delay is likely to come at very high cost, as the contractor must pay staff, workers, and perhaps service the company’s own loans. The question now is who will blink first: will the government provide an acceptable guarantee, or will the contractor finish the project, essentially providing its own loan to Cameroon? 

In the larger context of China-Africa relations, this project serves to demonstrate that, contrary to the image of a one-sided asymmetry of power dominated by a strong China, African borrowers can exercise a certain degree of agency. Within the constraints of an established relationship involving a Chinese state lender and a Chinese contractor, the borrowing country was able to reconfigure project plans to suit its own ends, seemingly without first consulting its Chinese partners. 

This is not to say that doing so was necessarily the most prudent decision—and the repeated delays and missing payments indicate that local Cameroonians are likely to bear some of the negative consequences. For example, the last steps for finishing roads include a final layer of black top that seals the road, and the construction of culverts that channel water away from the road. Will the contractor complete these steps without being paid? Or will the road start to wash away in the rainy season? 

Nevertheless, the story highlights the fact that examining individual projects reveals the complexity and unpredictability of the relationships that develop between African countries and Chinese actors.

Note: At the time of publication, the Cameroonian government website where the authors sourced a large portion of the data necessary for this analysis (http://dad.minepat.gov.cm/) has ceased to be accessible online. We hope that it will become accessible again soon.

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