It’s general knowledge that the UK’s vast increase in development aid (ODA) from 05-07 consists largely of Nigeria’s debt buy-back. Net UK ODA increased by £2.5 billion 04-06, of which Nigeria’s debt cancellation counted for £1.7 billion. (Net ODA in 04 was £4.3 billion, in 06 it was £6.8 billion, as set out in DFID’s Statistics on International Development.)
We’ve long complained that debt relief should not be counted as aid, on the grounds that debt cancellation is not new money going into a country, but old money not leaving the country. It’s a difference that can’t be captured just by looking at the accounting, though: one has to think about the history and ethics of the money. This makes the argument slightly shakey.
But recently we’ve been concerned about it for another reason. According to the international accounting rules for debt cancellation (set by the OECD), cancellation of military debts cannot be counted towards overseas aid targets. The UK has made some fairly significant steps towards reaching the 0.7% GNI target, going from about 0.36% GNI in 2003-04, to 0.51% in 2006-07. We been wondering, though, whether this level has been reached by counting the write-off of military debts towards the 0.7% target – that is, by breaking the OECD rules.
All of the debt cancelled for (or rather: bought back from) Nigeria was export credit debt, that is, old commercial debts that had been guaranteed by the UK and Nigerian governments. On average, around 40% of export credits are for arms. If this percentage held for Nigeria’s debts, then around 40% of Nigeria’s debts should not be counted towards the UK’s 0.7% aid target. This would mean that, potentially, the UK would have to reduce its ODA by £700 million (about 40% of £1.7 billion).
Given Nigeria’s history of military dictatorships, and the vast amounts of money that elites in that country have had for prestige projects, it surely would not be surprising if Nigeria had military debts to the UK.
We asked DFID whether they had gone through Nigeria’s debts before cancellation, and excluded the military debts, but they didn’t have the information. So Gavin Strang MP asked a Parliamentary Question on our behalf, which was answered very promptly, which was great, and the answer came back:
Arms Trade: Nigeria
Dr. Strang: To ask the Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform what proportion of export credit outstanding at the end of financial year 2004-05 for Nigeria was for military goods. 
Malcolm Wicks [holding answer 28 January 2008]: Information on ECGD business supported prior to 1991 is not held on a basis which enables defence to be identified separately from other sectors. ECGD has however supported no defence business on Nigeria since that date. (29 Jan 2008 : Column 202W)
The first part of the answer means that military debts cancellation may have been counted towards the 0.7% target, but that there is no record of what this is. The second part of the question, though, would be great news if true, since it would mean that the Abacha regime received no official military support from the UK. UK arms sales to Africa, however, according to the Observer:
UK arms sales to Nigeria [are] up tenfold since 2000 to £53m, including armoured vehicles and large calibre artillery. (June 12, 2005)
Now, Nigeria is surely a risky market (though markets warmed to it immediately after the debt cancellation); and the Export Credit Guarantee Department exists to support UK exports into risky markets. Furthermore, export credits were being provided well into the 90s for exports to Indonesia, so why baulk at Nigeria?
It therefore seems absolutely incredible that the Export Credit Guarantee Department has guaranteed no loans to Nigeria since 1991. Absolutely, mind-stunningly, incredible. Totally, discombobulatingly, extra-terrestrially incredible. However, there can be no doubt that the answer to the Parliamentary Question is entirely accurate.