Interest on debt grows without rain: or so the old chestnut goes. This has certainly been the case for Nigeria over time and it seems no lessons have been learnt for all the angst and anguish debt and debt servicing have caused in the past.
Nigeria has been doing a lot of borrowing in recent times and between 2015 and 2020, Nigeria’s debt profile rose from US$9.7 billion to US$27 billion. Interestingly, these figures only show the amounts taken up as debt, the principal, and do not depict the full picture which should include the amount that the country has to pay as interest on loans.
Interest on loans is most times overlooked and not given the proper consideration it ought to receive as discussions on loans by the government and indeed the entire country is always at net price. This is less than ideal for a country like Nigeria which is neck-deep in debt. Take for instance, the P&ID case which was not properly handled and ended up costing the country an additional US$3 billion, in addition to the initial amount of US$6.6 billion, on interests accrued.
Borrowing to fund infrastructure projects is not itself wrong but it is important for the government to study the feasibility of loans taken up, and consider the interest that will be owed as an important aspect of the transaction, looking at the entire picture in a holistic manner and understanding the real implications of what it is getting into.
Earlier in the year, Nigeria entered into an agreement with Chinese lenders to fund a big gas pipeline project estimated to cost US$2.5 billion known as the AKK natural gas pipeline. This pipeline when complete would be a full 614km long and would pass through Ajaokuta- Kaduna- Kano hence the name AKK. The Ministry of Finance stated that the loan required for the project was US$2.51 billion, at a 3.75% interest rate over a period of 12years; in other words, the total sum the country will need to pay is actually approximately US$3.15billion. And that is the figure which should be talked about in the public space, because that is what the project will cost the country directly.
A similar approach should be taken to all project loans, so the country knows exactly where it stands in the real scheme of things. Yet strangely it is not. Consider the current loan in contention in the public space namely the US$500 million from China’s Exim bank for railway construction and other transport-related infrastructure. There is public outrage because of a clause in the agreement waiving immunity as a sovereign state. The Minister of Transport has tried to downplay the enormity of the implication of defaulting asserting that FG has the capacity to repay the loan within the 20-year timeframe as the incredibly low interest rate of 2.8 percent is favourable to Nigeria.
However, if one does the maths, at the 2.8% interest rate, repayment of the loan would mean payment of a total of US$659.79 million, factoring in annuity of US$32.99 million and interest of US$159.79 million. This might not be the most pragmatic of decisions as there is no guarantee that the railway would recoup even its operating costs (ticket prices have just been hiked by 100%, which can be read as a sign of the difficulties) and government would have to subsidize the project from oil revenues, further diminishing the treasury.
That is a discussion for another day- the possibility of the rail infrastructure paying for itself. Whilst the public worries about the sovereign clause it would do well to have the entire picture, as interest always mounts up over time and if ignored will at some point in the future invariably take the nation by surprise.