FACTBOX-Sudan's external debt burden

CAIRO, May 17 (Reuters) – Sudan is seeking relief on more than $50 billion in external debt, with multilateral and bilateral creditors meeting in Paris in an effort to push the process forward.

Debt relief is a crucial step for Sudan, which sits in a volatile region between the Horn of Africa and North Africa, in its attempts to recover from a deep economic crisis and reenter the global economy after decades of isolation.

HOW MUCH DEBT IS THERE?

Sudan’s debt totals at least $50 billion as of the end of 2019, according to the International Monetary Fund (IMF). The country is still working with its creditors to reconcile its debt up to the end of last year, and officials say the final total could be as high $60 billion.

According to the IMF, $5.6 billion is owed to multilateral organizations including itself, the World Bank, and the African Development Bank (ADB). An estimated $19 billion is owed to Paris Club creditors, of whom France, Austria, and the United States are the largest.

A similar amount is owed to non-Paris Club countries, including Kuwait, Sudan’s largest creditor at $9.8 billion, Saudi Arabia, and China. Finally, Sudan holds what an IMF official says is an unusually high amount of debt to commercial lenders, estimated at almost $6 billion.

As Sudan was cut off from the international system for decades, about 85% of its debt is arrears — unpaid interest and penalties.

HOW WILL THE DEBT BE REDUCED?

After Sudan’s removal from the U.S. state sponsors of terrorism list in late 2020, Sudan became eligible for the Highly Indebted Poor Countries (HIPC) programme, which provides debt relief for low-income nations. Under the programme, all Sudan’s creditors come to an agreement to restructure and forgive debt.

Sudan’s debt is the biggest to be tackled through HIPC to date and progress so far has been swift, an IMF official said.

While HIPC may take until 2024, a Sudanese official said creditors could quickly lift a large part of the burden by forgiving most of Sudan’s arrears after a “decision point” expected in June to kick off the HIPC process.

However, after that decision point Sudan will have to start making debt service payments.

The country’s arrears to the World Bank and African Development Bank have already been cleared, and in Paris it is hoping to secure funding to clear its arrears to the IMF as well, allowing it to proceed towards the decision point.

To get here, Sudan undertook IMF-monitored economic reforms, removing fuel subsidies and sharply devaluing its currency.

It must undertake further economic and governance reforms to reach a HIPC “completion point” after an estimated three years, when it hopes to have secured relief on almost all its debt.

WHY DOES THIS MATTER?

Through debt relief, Sudan opens up its lines of credit with multilateral organizations and other countries, allowing it to receive new grants and loans at low or zero interest.

That financing is badly needed since Sudan has been stuck in a prolonged economic crisis that triggered an uprising against former President Omar al-Bashir, toppled in April 2019.

Sudan is in a fragile political transition, with the military and civilians sharing power until the end of 2023.

It has already received a commitment of a grant of $2 billion to be spent over the coming two years as a result of clearing its World Bank arrears, as well as a $207 million grant from the ADB.

The IMF plans to start an extended credit facility for new financing in areas including health and education, infrastructure and agriculture, alongside further reforms.

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