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The Ticking Debt Bomb in Africa Threatens a Global Explosion

Loan payments were manageable—barely—when growth was strong, but fallout from the outbreak threatens to unravel years of progress.

Kilamba, a satellite city near Luanda, is one of Angola’s megaprojects.

Kilamba, a satellite city near Luanda, is one of Angola’s megaprojects.

Photographer: Mauro Sérgio for Bloomberg Businessweek
Updated on

The new airport serving the Angolan capital of Luanda was intended to be a bright and welcoming symbol of the former Portuguese colony’s renaissance—a counterpoint to the three-decade civil war that ended in 2002. Two parallel runways were to accommodate even the biggest jets, a new 40-kilometer (25-mile) rail line would whisk passengers to the city center, and a shimmering glass terminal bigger than the Pentagon was designed with dozens of restaurants, bars, and shops for the 15 million visitors the government expected to pass through annually.

Sixteen years after construction crews broke ground, the terminal—largely completed in 2012—is gathering dust in the flat scrubland southeast of Luanda. The railway was never finished, the runways have yet to see a commercial flight, and the opening date has been repeatedly pushed back—now expected sometime in 2022 or 2023. What’s harder to push back, though, is the billions of dollars in loans that funded construction. While the government hasn’t revealed the financing details, local media estimate that Angola owes Chinese creditors from $3 billion to $9 billion for the unfinished facility.