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China in Africa: The Real Story

China's $23 Billion Deal in Nigeria: How Real Is It?

Deborah Brautigam

The Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC) announced on Thursday last week that it had signed an MOU with China State Construction Engineering Corporation Ltd. to construct three oil refineries (about 250,000 bbl/day capacity each) and a petrochemical plant. The total cost would reportedly be $23 billion (or $23.8 billion, according to Beijing's official mouthpiece People's Daily, which also announced the MOU). If we disregard the petrochemical plant, the projected cost would be about $30,666 per capacity-barrel (a measure I think I just invented).

The endeavor still needs to secure loan financing: a combination of supplier's credits guaranteed by SINOSURE, and loans from a consortium of Chinese banks (as far as I know, SINOSURE is simply an export insurance/guarantee agency; it doesn't supply finance itself). This is clearly not a Chinese, but a Nigerian investment. As the People's Daily noted: "Nigeria State Petroleum Corp is responsible for the construction funds."

According to All Africa, 80% of the funding would be supplied by CSCEC, and 20% by NNPC.  If CSCEC merely supplies loans, this doesn't imply any equity shares in the refinery.

How solid is this news? CSCEC is a Beijing firm, a Shanghai stock exchange-listed company, and a subsidiary of China's largest state-owned construction company. It's a very respectable company, unlike the mysterious Hong Kong-based China International Fund we've seen a lot of lately.

But it's still early. An MOU is a sign of intention:  more than a first date, but much less than a wedding ceremony. The chances of this being derailed, like other large Chinese projects in Nigeria, are high. Yet it also has all the hallmarks of China's more successful deals in Africa. No bids. Creative loan financing. Chinese concern about loan repayment. "Agency of restraint" that locks some of a county's natural resources into directly useful infrastructure. Note these provisions, in particular:
...the operational mode of the new refineries will be different from that of the existing ones, ... government will have no shares or financial contribution to make in the construction and management of the plants as the entire project will be executed with loans sourced by NNPC and the Chinese firm. The refineries are to be managed by CSCEC consortium upon completion until the full recovery of their loan used on the project.
With this much detail, it sounds like the project(s) are indeed fairly advanced. They also sound like BOT (Build, Operate, Transfer), projects, rather than BOOT (Build, Own, Operate, Transfer). This would differ from the model set up with Sicomines in the DRC. Chinese lenders will expect the loans to be secured, probably with oil export proceeds sent to a Chinese escrow account. Also in contrast to the DRC, there is no talk of a resource concession linked directly to the deal.

SINOSURE is very conservative. If they do get involved in guaranteeing the loans, they will want to make very sure they don't lose their shirt.  But will the Nigerian government provide a sovereign guarantee? There could be more wrangling around sovereign guarantees such as we saw in the DRC with the $9 billion (now $6 billion) copper project.

Could this still be win-win for Nigeria? It would be terrific if Nigerians could finally refine their own oil. They presently import about 85% of their fuel needs, despite being a major oil producer. Some 20,000 Nigerians are expected to find direct and indirect employment through the construction and operation of the plants. But ultimately the benefit for Nigerians rests not just in employment and in the national pride of refining their oil, but in the cost of refining versus importing it. International tenders and competitive bidding are supposed to ensure that countries get value for their money. Not that this always works.

A quick search of refinery construction costs yielded one recent report of a refinery planned for Kuwait of 615,000 bbl/day capacity, for $19 billion ($30,894 per barrel of capacity). But that contract was canceled after opposition members objected that even though it was an international tender, it had not been done properly. (The companies were South Korean, Japanese, and American). The projected costs of the Nigerian project seem to be in line with the estimates for the proposed Kuwait construction. Another project proposed in South Africa was estimated to cost $10 bn for a 400,000 bbl/day capacity refinery, or $25,000 per barrel of capacity.

I remember analyzing the cost of producing irrigated wheat in Nigeria while on a World Bank mission there in 1987. We found that it cost 10 times as much in foreign exchange to produce irrigated wheat in Nigeria as was saved by not importing the wheat. If they do come to pass, let's hope these oil refineries are a more efficient venture. But if they don't come to pass, this will reinforce what Peter Bosshard said in response to my post on Nigerian power plants: 
Because of financial and political spoils, signing a contract for a big infrastructure project is more attractive than actually building and operating it. This is one reason why so many deals are announced but then never materialize. (See more on this in his blog post: Money for Nothing (Or How Corruption Fuels Dam Building in Nigeria).
So ... who wants to take bets on these projects going forward? A hat tip to Peter Lewis for this story.