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China in Africa: The Real Story

China in Nigeria: Power Myths & Realities

Deborah Brautigam

How many times have you read that "China" is building the Mambila Hydropower Project in Nigeria? Folks, as of right now, this project is moribund.

Yes, two Chinese companies, China Gezhouba Group Corporation (CGGC) and China Geo-Engineering Corporation (CGC), signed a contract to construct the dam. But the expected China Eximbank financing was never finalized. The Mambila dam fell victim to the review of President Obasanjo's murky "oil-for-infrastructure" deals ordered by his successor, the late President Yar'Adua, in October 2007. This was nicely detailed in an August 2009 Chatham House report, Thirst for Oil. The Chinese companies have a contract, but without secure financing, the project will not go forward.

Nigeria does have two real cases of Chinese power plant construction, however. Two sites (Papalanto and Omotosho) were chosen for multi-phase gas-fired power plants, and both contracts were signed in 2002. Both had Chinese financing, almost certainly export buyer's credits from China's Eximbank.  (I was given a copy of the terms of these Chinese loans:  $114.9 million each, for two 335MW power plants, signed in 2002, at 6% interest, a grace period of 6 years, maturity in 12 years.)

As opposed to hydropower dams, which use a renewable resource, but are controversial for their environmental and social disruption, gas power plants use a natural resource that Nigeria has in abundance, yet is currently wasting in useless flares (see photos above and below, courtesy of BBC). Each site was projected to reach 1000+MW over time. For the first phase of 335MW, as former president Obasanjo recounted in "My Power Plant Story" (May 12, 2008):
We had to seek loan from China at concessionary rate to support two of the sites ... Omotosho and Papalanto were built to the point of commission before I left government in May 2007. As at today, Papalanto, Omotosho ... are generating power for the grid. 
Obasanjo also pointed out that Omotosho and Papalanto were slated for expansion, and Nigeria did launch second phases at both sites. According to a January 30, 2010 investigative report in the Nigeria Compass by lead reporter Charles Okonji:
  • China National Machinery and Equipment Company (CMEC), the major state-owned firm which had completed the first phase, was awarded the EPC (Engineering, Procurement, and Construction) contract for Phase II of the Omotosho plant, for 750MW of additional thermal power.
  • Shandong No. 3 Electric Power Construction Corporation (SEPCO III), the smaller Chinese firm that built the first phase of Papalanto, was also awarded the contract for the second phase of 750MW at Papalanto.
However, China Eximbank did not finance the second phase of Omotosho, where the Nigerian government defaulted on the financing after providing a down payment. The work stalled. Omotosho is reportedly being pruned down to 500MW. At Papalanto, apparently financing was secured and the work on the 750MW expansion was said to be close to completion with a projected June 2010 commissioning date.

The financing for the second stage of Papalanto could also have been from China Eximbank. Building Bridges, a 2009 report* on Chinese infrastructure projects in Africa done by researchers at the World Bank, states (p. 26) that $300 million (or, on p. 57, $298 million) of the financing for Papalanto was secured from China Eximbank with a deal for China National Petroleum Company (CNPC) to purchase 30,000 barrels of oil per day from Nigeria's national oil company. Given that the first phase of Papalanto was financed in 2002 at $114 mil and that the first phase, at 335MW was less than half the size of the second phase, at 750MW, this financing of $298 or $300 million seems certain to be for Phase II. Would be interesting to know more about this oil-backed infrastructure deal. I haven't seen another hint of it anywhere. Has anyone else?

Ironically, despite their ongoing expansion, the Omotosho and Papalanto plants (first phase) were both operating well below capacity in 2009 ... due to inadequate gas supplies. A resource Nigeria has in abundance continues to burn across the Niger Delta, and Nigerians continue to experience famously "epileptic" power supplies. Perhaps it's time to reconsider the finance for Mambila?

*The 2009 report is confusing because it does not mention that the two power plants were constructed in two stages, with the first phase (2002-2007) financed by China. Yet it states that the size of the two stations will be 335MW, (actually the size for the first stage only). The second stage was for an additional 750 MW, although this was apparently scaled back to 500MW at Omotosho. The report also said that China Eximbank was financing the construction of the power plant at Geregu (built by the German company Siemens). This is highly unlikely, given that the purpose of China Eximbank is to finance exports from China, not Germany. Since the Building Bridges study provides no documentation for their information, it is hard to double check their sources.