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China in Africa: The Real Story

Chinese Refineries in Nigeria, Chad, Niger & Ghana: The Sudan Model?

Deborah Brautigam

Khartoum Refinery. photo credit:
We've read recently about Chinese offers and deals to build refineries in African countries: Nigeria, Chad, and Niger and in Ghana, alumina, (but perhaps oil in the future). Not all of these deals have been concluded or financed, but we can learn something about the probable structure of the deals by revisiting the first of these: the Khartoum Refinery, a joint venture between the government of Sudan and China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC), which opened in June 1998.

This refinery was financed by CNPC (there is no mention of China Eximbank, which was still a relatively small player in the 1990s), probably through a supplier's credit. According to a 2002 report by the IMF, the financing was secured by crude oil exports -- not access to a new concession, but as a guarantee.

At first, the debt service payments for the refinery were non-transparent, i.e. not included in the government's budget. The IMF made greater transparency a condition, and by 2002, as the Fund noted, Sudan's "budget now fully incorporates the debt service payments for the construction of the Khartoum refinery" (p. 21).

The IMF and the World Bank were concerned that Sudan had scaled back on debt payments owed to their two institutions in 2001. The value of Sudan's crude oil exports amounted to US$1.3 billion in 2001 (p. 10), but much of this value belonged to Sudan's foreign investors. In 2002, Sudan's net foreign exchange receipts were projected to be only around $120 million. Debt service for the refinery (which mainly supplied Sudan and its neighbors, including Ethiopia) amounted to $60 million annually. This left only about $60 million "for payments to the World Bank, the Fund, and other creditors (p. 38, n. 22)."

How did CNPC step ahead of the IMF and the World Bank, who are generally recognized as any borrower's "preferred creditors" (i.e. they are supposed to be paid first)? The debt service on the Khartoum refinery was fully secured by Sudan's crude oil exports. As the IMF noted, if debt service was not met, "the CNPC has the right to lift the equivalent amount of crude oil in kind. Nonpayment is thus not a realistic option (ibid)." Through securing its credit by crude oil, CNPC effectively became Sudan's most preferred creditor.

In its letter to the IMF, Sudan noted that in addition to including the repayments for the refinery in the budget, i.e. making it all more transparent, it planned to "implement a system that will ensure cash payment, as budgeted, of oil collateralized debt service payments in order to avoid in-kind lifting, thus further increasing transparency of oil revenues and avoiding distortion of oil delivery obligations" (p. 68). This was implemented.

What can Nigeria, Chad, Niger and Ghana learn from Sudan's experience?

First, clearly, securing the refinery with future oil revenues (and, perhaps, having Chinese managers) allowed Sudan to refine its own products rather than exporting crude and importing refined products, which is what Nigeria does today as a result of its failure to keep its refineries working. (We don't know how profitable/cost-effective the Chinese-built Khartoum Refinery, is in comparison with other, similar refineries. This information would be useful for countries contemplating similar arrangements.)

Second, be transparent. If a poorly governed country like Sudan can practice budget transparency for Chinese finance, there's no reason why others can't.

Third, price your domestic petroleum sales at or even above the market, as Sudan has done, in order to keep the petroleum sector above water and repay your creditors. Nigeria has far to go in this regard.

Fourth, you may be able to get away with the preferred creditor arrangement, but it won't be a walk in the park. It's easy to see from this why the IMF and the World Bank dislike the Chinese model of commodity-secured credits. They do effectively enable Chinese creditors to step ahead of the IMF and the World Bank in having Chinese credits repaid. This was one of the issues in the long stand-off over the $9 billion Chinese credit to the DRC.

Finally, keep in mind that by tying up your future revenues, you could at some point find yourself so squeezed that half of your net foreign exchange earnings are tied up in payments for just one project, as in Sudan.