Yang Jiechi, a special representative of China’s President Xi Jinping announced the debt relief after a meeting with Cameroon President Paul Biya.

When the two met in the capital Yaounde last month and wrote off a chunk of Cameroon debt, the deal very nearly went under the radar.

The public entity that manages the Cameroon’s external debt, Autonomous sinking fund, says the African country’s total debt burden to China stands close to five and a half billion dollars.

When the decision was made and the deed was done China issued no press release, and neither did the Cameroon government mention the debt cancellation in its write-up of Yang’s visit.

The deal was only unveiled when a Chinese news report later alleged that Beijing had written off 3 trillion Central African CFA francs ($5.2 billion) off of Cameroon’s debt during Yang’s trip that the existence of a deal surfaced.

Last week, Hua Chunying the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson told CNN: “China agreed to waive the interest-free inter-governmental debt that Cameroon had not paid back by the end of 2018.”

According to the International Monetary Fund about a third of Cameroons debt is owed to China.

The debt that was waived was worth $78.4 million. Cameroon’s total debt is 5.8 trillion Central African CFA francs ($10 billion).

So, much as a percentage of the debt was written off the question still remains. Why the secrecy?

At the triennial Forum on China-Africa Cooperation, the Chinese government pledged an eye popping $60 billion package of aid, investment and loans to Africa.

The response? Some Chinese posted angry comments on the Chinese internet which Censors quickly deleted. Their complaint been that China has at least 30 million people still living in poverty, so why the insensitivity to their own?

Source: China-Africa Research Initiative

Indeed African nations have borrowed $143 billion from China since 2000, according to CARI figures.

China may have also sought an under-the-radar arrangement because of Cameroon’s political state of turbulence.

A secessionist movement is destabilizing the two Anglophone regions of the largely French-speaking nation which was born from the unification of a former British and a former French colony. Not helping matters is the not so small matter of the Boko Haram insurgency in the northern part of the country.

The West African country was tipped to host the 2019 African Cup of Nations but the continuous unrest has seen the nation stripped of the honor of hosting the continent’s biennial soccer championship, which will now take place in Egypt.

The decision from China to provide debt relief comes at a time where tension is building between both country’s in the mining sector.

East Cameroon is rich in gold. Justin Kamga, coordinator of the Forests and Rural Development Association (FODER) in Yaounde, says Chinese companies are operating illegal mines across the region and have scant respect for the land.

Chinese mine site in Cameroon

When engaging in mining activities, Chinese companies use heavy machinery that often pockmarks villages with multiple holes 30 meters deep, destroying farmland in direct contrast Local Cameroonian miners typically use artisanal mining methods which do not damage the environment, says Kamga.

According to FODER nine people died in holes left behind by indiscriminate Chinese mining activities in December alone.

In fact, Kamga said that from 2015 through 2018 more than a 100 people have died in such holes, which trigger landslides and has been sparking local outrage at Chinese companies.

This is despite regulations put in place that operators should safely cover holes to prevent such incidents, but according to Kamga the protection from the Cameroon army means the Chinese mining companies ignore such regulations with little to no legal retribution.

While the main reason for the write-off of some part of Cameroon’s debt remains a mystery, the question still remains. Why all this secrecy?

Source: Festus Kwabena Oppong Asante

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