China and its rivals in the West are using Africa’s debt problems , exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic, as a political football in their struggle for power on the continent, experts say. Seifudein Adem, a professor of global studies at Doshisha University in Kyoto, Japan, said that ballooning national debt had been a major concern for many African countries even before Covid-19, but had now been brought front and centre. While it was encouraging that major creditors were seriously considering cancelling or rescheduling debt repayments, Adem, who is from Ethiopia, said he was sceptical about their motives. “There was perhaps the realisation that under the current circumstances poor countries would not have any choice but to threaten default if they are pushed,” he said. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is in no doubt as to who is to blame for Africa’s debt crisis. “There’s an enormous amount of debt that the Chinese Communist Party has imposed on African countries all across the region,” he said recently. China-Africa trade down 14 per cent in first quarter to US$41 billion The European Union’s foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell said late last month that Europe should work to prevent the US-China rivalry having a negative impact in other parts of the world, particularly Africa. “The G20 and the International Monetary Fund have announced a debt moratorium for the poorest countries, a decision that will certainly bring relief to many,” he said in an article published by the European Council on Foreign Relations. “But this is clearly not enough. All donors, including China, should be working to cancel this debt.” Weeks earlier, French President Emmanuel Macron appealed for China to provide debt relief for African countries. China’s foreign ministry said that while it had never pushed any country into financial difficulty over repayments, it would only respond to requests for debt relief on a case-by-case basis. Observers said that while Beijing had in the past written off most of the interest-free loans extended to Africa, they accounted for less than 5 per cent of Africa’s total financial debt to China, with the rest covered by concessional and commercial loans. But Stephen Chan, a professor at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies, said China was not the only country guilty of exploiting Africa’s need for foreign funding. “This battle has been going on for decades,” he said. “The West has a long history of giving loans to African countries and gleaning the rewards, so that even with eventual debt cancellation, the interest paid has been significant.” The sole purpose was to create a never-ending cycle of loans and repayments, he said. “It’s profitable, so the aim is to keep competitors out of the market,” Chan said. “It is for this reason, not the goodness of their hearts, that they cancel debts, but not the dependency on loan finance.” African countries have called for US$100 billion in bailouts and debt relief to help them cope with the impact of Covid-19. The G20 responded by agreeing to suspend all official debt service payments for the world’s poorest nations, including those in Africa. This is not the first time such a move has been made. In 1996, the International Monetary Fund and World Bank launched the Heavily Indebted Poor Countries Initiative, which wrote off many of the debts owed by the world’s poorest nations, including US$76 billion by 31 African countries. However, the initiative also created room for nations to begin accumulating fresh debt, much of which came from China and Europe. According to the latest World Bank data, as of 2018, African countries’ long-term debt to foreign creditors totalled US$493.6 billion, or more than double the US$232.7 billion they owed in 2010. China does not publish its overseas lending data, but figures from the China Africa Research Initiative at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies in Washington indicate it advanced more than US$143 billion to 49 African governments and their state-owned companies between 2000 and 2017. David Shinn, a former US ambassador to Ethiopia and Burkina Faso, and adjunct professor at George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs, said that, traditionally, most US and European aid to Africa was in the form of grants, so Western governments did not hold much African debt. Of the continent’s current debt, about 20 per cent was owed to the Chinese government, 13 per cent to other countries – including Western nations, Arab states and Japan – and about 35 per cent to global financial institutions like the World Bank and African Development Bank, he said. The remaining 32 per cent was held by non-Chinese private lenders, which would be “very difficult to reschedule or cancel”, he said.