A consortium of international banks remains committed to lending the embattled and financially strapped Government of Zaire an additional $215 million despite the recent fighting in that country, an officer of Citibank said yesterday.
Citibank leads a syndicate of more than 60 banks which, after more than a year of difficult negotiations, submitted the loan proposal to the Zaire Central Bank just days before rebels invaded mineral-rich Shaba Province. Shaba, with its copper, cobalt and diamond mines, is the source of about 70 percent of Zaire's foreign exchange earnings.
"The change situation has not impacted the loan," said James Abbott, a Citibank vice president who normally is based in Zaire. "Our anticipation is that this loan will be extended."
However, some bankers in the syndicate yesterday questioned whether Zaire - already a near-basket case among international borrowers - now could meet the repayment terms called for in the five-year loan because of the damage to its economic infrastructure and the need for an immediate infusion of funds, above the $215 million, just to get the mines back into operation.
The extent of the damage is not knwon. Some preliminary estimates say it could take anywhere from six months to a few years to restore the mines to normal. And Zaire could lose hundreds of millions of dollars in foreign exchange earnings in the interim.
But the initiative on the loan now seems to lie with the Central Bank of Zaire.
"The ball is in Zaire's court," said one banker. "If they were to say, 'Let's sign tomorrow,' the banks would say, 'If you feel you can meet the commitment on the loan, well go ahead with it.'"
He added that three exists "a pretty solid front among the banks" in the Zaire syndicate, and said that "it would be incorrect to say the banks are backing off from the loan."
That doesn't mean the banks could not extract themselves from the loan commitment if they wanted to by citing the intervening invasion as a reason to reassess the situation, he said.
"If you could have a force majeur in the international lending field, it would have to be a situation like this," the banker said. "I don't think a prudent finance minister would hold a gun to an international banking syndicate's head for what he could get out of it."
The banks, however, have a certain self-interest in extending the new loan, because one condition is that Zaire, in return for the $215 million, repay about $135 million to the banks for previous loans extended to the African country on which it has been in arrears since 1975.
Without the new credit, Zaire could default on its more than $400 million in private bank debt, forcing some large white-downs by the commercial banks.
One Wall Street banking analyst yesterday voiced the view that the recent outbreak in fighting in Zaire actually could prove beneficial for the position of the banks.
"In some cases the best thing a country can do is lose a war," he commented, reasoning that Zaire now is likely to receive some substantial assistance from friendly governments such as the U.S. or international agencies such as the International Monetary Fund to help bolster its economy, and that this in turn will help bail out the banks.
An IMF mission in fact returned from Zaire just last Thursday. And, according to sources at the fund, "Discussions are continuing" on establishment of a further IMF standby loan facility for Zaire. Such a standby facility is one of the conditions the private banks are requiring before the $215 million loan can be completed.
"Even without a war, we wouldn't be in a position to sign a final agreement until the IMF had given its blessing," said one banker, who predicted that it might take several months before the situation is clarified.