Debt restructurings and budget cuts, and reform commitments still to be implemented: in many respects, newsflow from Republic of Congo is much as usual. However, the coronavirus lockdown and oil price slump have severely exacerbated the problems confronting President Denis Sassou Nguesso’s government and the population’s daily lives.

The government has sought to manage the crisis. Masked medical staff were checking temperatures when an African Energy editor arrived at Brazzaville’s new Chinese-built airport in late February. Nearly three months later, Prime Minister Clément Mouamba was able to announce a staged easing of the national lockdown on 16 May, but this included neither Brazzaville nor oil hub Pointe-Noire, where Covid-19 cases have soared at oil sites. On the ground, things remain difficult. A Pointe-Noire doctor told African Energy that “sometimes wilful lack of attention” to hand- washing and distancing has exacerbated the spread and led to doctors dying. Oil majors Total and Eni have reported a wave of Covid-19 cases on their rigs, but the doctor said the government had insisted production continued to maximise output as prices slumped.

The International Monetary Fund (IMF) and other funders are expected to provide extra support – Sassou in early May said he had asked for up to $500m – but even this may be insufficient. In 2019, hydrocarbons represented around 60% of GDP, 64% of government revenues and 78% of current account receipts. Fitch Ratings on 15 May reaffirmed Congo’s ‘CCC’ rating – which “reflects ongoing severe liquidity pressures that have been exacerbated by the recent fall in oil prices and scarce financing options” – and warned that “identified financing will be insufficient to fund soaring fiscal and external financing needs, estimated at 22% of GDP and 33% of GDP in 2020, respectively”.

Repayments of unguaranteed prepaid oil debt to traders, which are included in the Fitch estimates, remain unresolved despite the early April announcement of a deal (AE 413/19, 397/20). Rescheduling arrangements with Glencore and Trafigura have still to be finalised; Orion Oil, owned by the well-connected Lucien Ebata, has agreed a $280m reduction. This issue has held up an IMF programme since last December, and without a definitive deal, “lining up additional official creditor financing could be difficult”, Fitch said, though it observed the pandemic might make official creditors more lenient. They will need to be if Congo is to emerge relatively unscathed from its latest economic trauma.

The government has announced it is dissolving insolvent electricity and water utilities Société Nationale d’Electricité and Société Nationale de Distribution d’Eau.Three new private companies will be created to run the electricity and water sectors and power transmission system, in a process piloted by Mouamba.The new water company will concession urban and peri-urban supply in an effort to attract funds. Investors will be sought to supply electricity and extend the grid in a country where less than 50% of urban consumers and only an estimated 5.6% of the rural population have access. However, the companies have still to be created, let alone attract the desired investment.

The government has announced ‘free’ electricity and water during the lockdown period – although it is unclear whether bills will follow later – and, as one Congolese observer commented, “that doesn’t mean much if you have no electricity at all”. Brazzaville residents report water shortages, and a sharp increase in power blackouts. A resident in the Nkombo neighbourhood said he had power only on one day in five, which meant his refrigerated food stocks perished. Despite the third turbine coming on line at Eni’s Djeno plant, a lack of investment in the distribution system means residents are complaining that supply has not improved in Pointe- Noire (AE 410/6).

Complaints about faltering services are adding to pressures in the run-up to the 2021 elections, when Sassou is slated to run again and utilities reform and other advances are required to build enthusiasm for his re-election. Previous experience suggests they will fall short.