The final decision was expected in May. It was finally with a little delay, probably after diplomatic pressure, that the concession for the Benguela Railway (CFB), which links the port of Lobito in Angola to Luau, a border town with the DRC, was awarded. And, surprise, it was granted to a consortium of private European companies, to the detriment of a cartel of Chinese companies. A symbolic choice of China’s loss of influence in this southern African country.
China-Angola: in Catoca, the weak signal of an end to romance?
In accordance with article 63 of the law on public procurement, the call for tenders was launched on September 8, 2021. It related to the concession, for a period of thirty years, “of the exploration, management and maintenance of the railway infrastructure for the transport of goods, ore, liquid and gas” located between the two Angolan cities, also called the Lobito corridor.
Trafigura at the bridgehead
Consequently, this contract reflects an economic ambition of prime importance for Angola. It aims first of all to maximize the potential represented by the export of minerals from Congolese Katanga and the Zambia. The next step is to promote the development of local communities (some 6 million people) scattered along the 1,344 kilometers of the corridor, which crosses 35% of the country’s agricultural land.
An obvious strategic interest with the control of the Copperbelt
Certainly, initially, the railway will not benefit from extensions to the DRC and Zambia, due to a lack of investment in these two countries. But, in the very short term, 25,000 to 30,000 tonnes of copper, cobalt, lithium and manganese could be exported each month by truck and then loaded onto trains bound for the port of Lobito, open to the Atlantic Ocean. Thus, a Kolwezi-Lobito journey, approximately 1,800 km long, can be completed in 7 days, whereas 16 are needed via Dar es Salaam in Tanzania (2,587 km), 13 via Beira in Mozambique (2,945 km) and 10 via the South African port of Durban (3,549 km).
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The tender evaluation committee, chaired by José Roberto Fernandes da Costa, submitted its report last April, ranking the European consortium in the lead, ahead of that made up of Chinese companies. Led by the Swiss group Trafigura, world leader in the trading of raw materials, the European consortium is completed by the giant of the Portuguese construction industry, Mota-Engil, and the Belgian company Vecturis, whose expertise in railway matters is no longer at demonstrate in the region since it held a management contract with the National Railway Company of Congo (SNCC).
This European consortium looked great, especially since the Trafigura-Vecturis alliance had already expressed its interest in the project in the years 2012-2015, creating a training center in Lobito which has around ten technicians. The only downside in the European proposal was the past of the Swiss group, accused of close ties with dignitaries of the old regime, starting with Manuel Vicente and General Dino (Leopoldo Fragoso do Nascimento). But, since 2017, Trafigura has managed to regain its virginity thanks in particular to a major internal reorganization and the adoption of a rigorous governance policy.
China-Angola: the end of a model
Facing the European trio was a consortium made up of three Chinese behemoths having won a number of contracts in Angola over the past 15 years: Citic (China International Trust and Investment Corporation), China Railway Group, Chinese construction giant, and Sinotrans, the leading logistics and transport group. It seemed unbeatable, especially since it was the same Chinese who rebuilt this railway line ravaged by civil war and obtained the concession (not yet signed) to manage the commercial port of Lobito.
Break free from Chinese omnipotence and diversify relations
We suspect that between the evaluation report submitted in April and the final decision in June, diplomatic pressure will have come into play, insofar as behind this concession hides an obvious strategic interest with the control of the Copperbelt, this region rich in minerals (especially copper) located at the crossroads of the DRC, Zambia and Angola. All observers agreed that it could not escape the Chinese, considering their strong involvement in the reconstruction of Angola and the importance of the debt contracted by the latter with the Middle Empire (some 21 billion of dollars, i.e. nearly 19 billion euros). In other times, this simple reminder would have been enough to tip the balance.
Role of the United States
But the Angola of João Lourenço is no longer that of José Eduardo dos Santos and the desire to free itself from Chinese omnipotence and to diversify relations is a palpable reality. The offer from Trafigura Mota-Engil Vecturis, described as a “European” proposal by the Angolans themselves, was inherently the best and carefully prepared. Which was far from being the case with that of the Chinese. The European file occupied a prominent place at the EU-Angola forum organized last February in Brussels and was well defended by active diplomacy from the embassies concerned in Luanda.
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Not to mention the role, discreet but very real, of the United States which, in its trade war with China, was not prepared to accept a new Chinese advance in a country considered strategic. The visit of Under-Secretary of State Wendy Sherman to Luanda at the beginning of May, followed by that of Angolan Foreign Minister Téte António to his American counterpart Anthony Blinken a few weeks later, probably included this file on the agenda of the “bilateral issues”. With less than three months to go before the general elections, it was no doubt necessary to recall where the interests of Angola and son President.