The ten most indebted African countries at the end of 2021

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By Ilyes Zouari, President of CERMF (Center for Study and Reflection on the Francophone World).


Some African countries are experiencing a particularly high level of indebtedness, which is expected to even exceed the symbolic bar of 100% of GDP at the end of 2021 for seven of them. With a stabilization of its global debt during the same year, French-speaking Africa remains the least indebted part of the continent, in particular because of the economic dynamism of the majority of its countries.

According to the latest IMF statistics and forecasts, released this October, the ten African countries expected to post the highest debt ratio at the end of 2021 are as follows: Sudan, with public debt equivalent to 209 , 9% of GDP, Eritrea (175.1%), Cape Verde (160.7%), Mozambique (133.6%), Angola (103.7%), Zambia (101 , 0%), Mauritius (101.0%), Egypt (91.4%), Tunisia (90.2%) and the Republic of Congo (or Congo-Brazzaville, 85.4%).

The “constants” and the novelties of the classification

The ranking of the most indebted countries on the continent therefore remains dominated by Sudan, an East African country experiencing a serious economic crisis and in a period of political transition since the coup d’état in April 2019. A regrettable situation for a country that enjoys significant economic potential, being abundantly irrigated by the Nile (the longest of the African rivers) and its tributaries, or by being the third largest producer of gold on the continent (after Ghana and Africa South) as well as a modest but not insignificant oil producer. It should be noted that Sudan is now one of the poorest African countries, with a per capita GDP of only $ 595 at the start of 2021, according to the World Bank.

While remaining at an extreme level, Sudan’s debt ratio nonetheless experienced a significant decline during the year 2021, since it is expected to settle at the end of the year at 209.9% of GDP, after have reached a level of 272.9% at the end of 2020. This spectacular reduction, but still largely insufficient, is due to the cancellation of part of the Sudanese debt last July, when the Paris Club countries had decided to erase 14.1 of the 23.5 billion dollars owed to them (out of a total of 56 billion Sudanese debt, all origins combined). France, one of the country’s main creditors, then confirmed its decision, announced at an international summit in support of Sudan held in Paris in May, to cancel all of the debt contracted with it, and amounting to $ 5 billion (just over a third of the overall cancellation volume).

The gravity of the economic situation in Sudan has notably been reflected in the sharp depreciation of the national currency, the Sudanese pound, which was devalued by 85% in February 2021.

Moreover, this situation is not without consequences for the country’s foreign policy either, and is probably partly at the origin of two major decisions that were taken during the year 2020, namely the conclusion of an agreement with Russia for the installation of a military base, and the establishment of diplomatic relations with Israel with a view to a rapprochement with the United States (and the lifting of the American sanctions which have long hit the economy of the country, accused of supporting terrorism).

If the application of the agreement with Russia had not then been de facto suspended, since the normalization of relations with the United States, it would have made Sudan the first African country to host an official Russian military base (which would have been added to an unofficial military presence, through the army of mercenaries of the Wagner company). As for the second decision, locally unpopular, it made the country the first non-border Arab-African country to establish diplomatic relations with the Hebrew state.

For its part, Angola continues to be among the five most indebted countries on the continent. A rather surprising situation for a country which has gigantic natural resources, and in particular in oil and diamonds for which it is the second continental producer (after Nigeria and Botswana, respectively). However, and despite its strengths, Angola has also experienced an economic decline in recent years, due to the lack of serious management of the colossal revenues amassed over the past two decades, and which is manifested in particular by the lack of diversification of the economy. the country’s economy, which relies heavily on extractive activities (hydrocarbons and mining industries being the source of no less than 98% of national exports).

Due to this poor governance, which prevented the country from coping with the drop in the price of hydrocarbons observed in recent years and the gradual depletion of certain deposits, Angola recorded a negative annual growth of -1.6 % on average, according to the World Bank, over the six-year period from 2015 to 2020, a rate well below that of its demographic growth (3.2% on average over the same period).

Consequently, the country, for example, has just been overtaken in wealth per capita by Côte d’Ivoire, whose oil production is about 30 times lower, but which can rely on a much more diversified economy, and which had moreover, it has recently been able to overtake Nigeria, the other major oil country on the continent (with production about 50 times higher).

In addition, it should be noted that the economic development of Angola has also resulted in an 84% drop in the value of the national currency against the dollar since 2014, the magnitude of which is reminiscent of the recent strong devaluation. suffered by the Sudanese currency… And with the key, there too, a strong inflation and a strong dollarization of the economy (use of the dollar for a significant part of the transactions, by refusal of the local currency considered as risky).

Like Angola, Zambia also remains well established in the list of the most indebted African countries, despite, again, the country’s great resources, which is notably the second African producer and the eighth in the world. copper. However, and in the absence of good governance, Zambia continues not to really take advantage of its potential, and had even attracted the spotlight of the international press in the second half of 2020 by becoming the first African country to default on the repayment of its debt (mainly contracted with China, as for Angola). In addition to Sudan, Angola and Zambia, Eritrea, Cape Verde, Mozambique and Egypt also continue to be among the countries whose presence is deeply rooted within the group of the ten most indebted countries of the country. continent.

In terms of novelties, Tunisia should make a remarkable and historic entry into this group of ten, with a debt level dropping from 89.7% to 90.2% of GDP. A situation that results from the political instability and the serious economic crisis that have affected the country over the past decade, since the Tunisian revolution of January 2011.

Formerly considered a model of economic and social development for the whole of Africa and the Arab world, despite certain shortcomings, sometimes exaggerated, Tunisia has indeed experienced a decade lost by recording an annual economic growth of only 0 , 7% on average over the ten-year period 2011-2020.

In addition, this North African country, which previously enjoyed an excellent reputation in international financial markets, unrivaled on the continent outside of South Africa at the time, is no longer today. able to launch any bond loan under optimal conditions (low interest rates close to those enjoyed by certain developed countries). This pushes the country to resort to the IMF and the World Bank, and / or to seek the financial guarantee of a major foreign power.

The other notable development in this latest IMF ranking lies in the significant improvement in the position of Congo-Brazzaville, which should drop from seventh place at the end of 2020 to tenth place at the end of 2021, and which should even leave the list again. of the ten most indebted countries on the continent by the end of 2022.

While the country’s efforts to consolidate public finances are to be welcomed, the authorities should now focus on carrying out far-reaching economic reforms, through the diversification of sources of income and the establishment of a more efficient framework. conducive to investment. Congo-Brazzaville should be inspired in particular by neighboring Gabon, with which it shares many points in common (geographical and climatic characteristics, significant oil production, small population, etc.) and whose major reforms in recent years have enabled the country to become recently the richest on the continent, overtaking Botswana in terms of wealth per capita (and excluding countries of particularly small size and population, namely Seychelles, Mauritius and Equatorial Guinea).

Finally, Mauritius, a recent newcomer who entered the continent’s ten most indebted countries during the year 2019, according to revised IMF data, continues to suffer from the collapse of international tourism, following the pandemic. The country should continue for some time to have a fairly high level of debt, at least in the short term (and projected at 99.8% by the end of 2022).

Francophone Africa remains the least indebted part of the continent

Three French-speaking countries should therefore end the year among the ten most indebted African countries, the first arriving only in seventh position, in this case Mauritius (considered as both French-speaking and English-speaking, for having known in the passed a double French and British presence, successively), followed by Tunisia (9th) and Congo-Brazzaville (10th). A situation similar to that of previous years, during which two to three French-speaking countries were also in the second half of the list. More generally, French-speaking Africa remains the least indebted part of the continent, with an overall debt ratio forecast at 58.4% of GDP at the end of 2021 for this set of 25 countries, and at 49.4% for its sub-Saharan part. composed of 22 countries.

For the rest of the continent, the rate should stand at 68.3% for all of non-French-speaking Africa, and 62.3% for its sub-Saharan part. The debt level of French-speaking Africa, which remains much lower than that of the majority of developed countries, thus stabilized overall in 2021, with a slight increase of 0.8 percentage point (and 0 , 3 point for its sub-Saharan part).

As for that of the rest of the continent, it should experience a drop of 2.0 points for the whole of non-French-speaking Africa (and 2.8 points for its sub-Saharan part). A decrease which is mainly explained by the sharp increase recorded in 2020, when the level of indebtedness had increased by 9.6 points (against 7.9 points for French-speaking Africa), and by 9.2 points for the part sub-Saharan (5.4 points for French-speaking sub-Saharan Africa).

This fairly good debt control, overall, results in particular from the strong economic growth experienced by most of the countries of French-speaking sub-Saharan Africa. It is also the most dynamic – and historically the most stable – region of the continent, where it recorded the best economic performance in 2020 for the seventh consecutive year and for the eighth time in nine years. Over the period 2012-2020, the annual growth of this group of 22 countries thus stood at 3.5% on average (4.0% except in the very specific case of Equatorial Guinea), against 2.1% for the rest of sub-Saharan Africa. A dynamism which is also particularly high within the WAEMU space, which is none other than the continent’s largest growth zone, with an annual GDP increase of 5.6% on average over the same period. nine years. A great performance, especially since this space is not the poorest region on the continent, a place occupied by East Africa. This progress is itself the result of numerous reforms carried out by the majority of French-speaking countries, and in particular in terms of good governance, diversification and improvement of the business climate.

On this last point, some countries have thus achieved a considerable good between the 2012 and 2020 rankings of the World Bank, and in particular Togo (passed from 162nd to 97th place), Côte d’Ivoire (from 167th place to 110th place), Senegal (from 154th to 123rd) or even Niger (from 173rd to 132nd place). The latter, which is on the verge of leaving the list of the ten poorest countries on the continent in terms of wealth per capita, and which now exceeds no less than 15 African countries in terms of human development (according to the ranking of the Mo foundation Ibrahim, more reliable on this point than the UN which systematically places – and strangely – Niger, with the highest fertility rate in the world, in the last position of the ranking, behind a country like South Sudan which is reputed to be the least developed on the continent – with Somalia, not ranked), now follows Nigeria (131st), and far better than Angola (177th) or even Ethiopia (ranked 159th, before the start of the war civil).

Overall, French-speaking Africa has therefore been better equipped to face the major crisis that has shaken the world since early 2020, and to finance the restart of the economy. According to the latest IMF forecasts, this set should also globally display the best economic performance on the continent again in 2021, even though it had experienced a much smaller slowdown at the height of the pandemic, in 2020. Certainly, the level of indebtedness is not the only factor that matters, but it remains undoubtedly one of those with the most important consequences.

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