In the wake of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) Forum in Beijing six weeks ago, Ethiopia gained another Chinese debt-concession. China’s second-largest African borrower and prominent BRI partner in infrastructure finance also received a cancellation on all interest-free loans up to the end of 2018. This was on top of previous renegotiated extensions of major commercial railway loans agreed earlier in 2018.
These concessions highlight the continuing debt-struggles that governments have in taking on Chinese large infrastructure projects. But they also demonstrate the advantages and flexibility, that African governments can gain in working with China—if they can leverage it.
Ethiopia’s railway projects have been an instructive case of both the benefits and pitfalls of Chinese finance. It has been over a year since the Chinese-built and financed Addis-Djibouti standard gauge railway (SGR) opened to commercial service in January 2018. A flagship project of China’s Belt and Road Initiative in the Horn of Africa, and constructed in parallel with Kenya’s showy Chinese-built SGR, the project was Ethiopia’s first railway since a century ago (another urban-rail project, the Addis light-rail transit (LRT) was completed earlier in 2015), as well as being the first fully-electrified line in Africa.