African debt raises its ugly head

New York – The spectre of high debt is raising its head again in Africa, analysts say, as sub-Saharan nations that borrowed cheaply on global markets are now squeezed by a commodities crash.

The return of debt troubles in Africa has caught some by surprise, they say, 20 years after a global campaign was mounted to offer debt relief to the world’s most impoverished nations.

“It is clearly a source of concern. People did not see it coming,” said Julien Marcilly, chief economist at French group Coface, which offers worldwide insurance to protect firms from the risk of clients defaulting.

An IMF-World Bank programme launched in 1996 has to date approved $76 billion (68 billion euros) in external debt relief for 36 of the world’s heavily indebted poor nations, of which 30 are in Africa.

For some of those countries, however, debt levels are rising again to worrying levels.

Relieved of their debt burdens by the international programme, countries enjoyed the budgetary freedom to boost economic growth, which was further propelled by soaring commodity prices.

“Over the past few years, sub-Saharan African sovereigns have enjoyed unusually favourable financing conditions,” Standard & Poor’s said in a recent report.