Sierra Leone Mamamah airport – President Koroma’s secret talks with his Chinese counterparts

Sierra Leone Telegraph: 17 April 2017

An article published last week by Africa Confidential (AC Vol 56 No 23) reported that despite promises made to the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, not to go ahead with the construction of a new international airport, president Ernest Bai Koroma is determined to go ahead.

The plan has been strongly condemned by the media and opposition political parties. In 2016, the IMF and World Bank strongly advised Koroma that the project was of doubtful economic benefit, and would add enormously to Sierra Leone’s debt burden.

But according to last week’s report by Africa Confidential, “China, however, has been piling on the pressure to go ahead. Deputy Foreign Minister Zhang Ming went to Freetown on 31 March, 2017, when Koroma announced that his government was in serious discussions about the project with the IMF which he expected to be concluded during the Fund’s and Bank’s Spring Meetings in Washington DC on 21-23 April, 2017.”

Elections in Sierra Leone are scheduled to take place next year, and it seems Koroma is in a hurry to start construction work on the new airport, which is expected to be completed – if it goes ahead, by October 2018, in time for president Koroma’s handing over to a newly elected government as his legacy.

But critics say that if the construction goes ahead this year, the ruling APC party will use this as a massive propaganda to woo voters at their elections campaign.

The cost of the new airport will not be cheap, though the project is believed to have been pruned,  so as to reduce cost as well as the time it will take the Chinese to construct the airport.

According to Africa Confidential, “Zhang repeated his government’s support for the project, which it had previously estimated would cost US$200 million and which the China Exim Bank would finance over 20 years.”

Africa Confidential further states that: “In a leaked 2016 report for the Koroma government, auditors Ernst and Young estimated the full cost of building Mamamah to an international standard at $318 million – about 11% of gross domestic product (AC Vol 57 No 4, Stuck at the airport).

“Ernst and Young also doubted the passenger and freight projections, saying the plan should be ‘entirely reconsidered’. Before the Ebola outbreak, Lungi Airport received about 40,000 passengers a year”.  This is far less than is required to make the new airport economically viable.

“Koroma has long viewed Mamamah as his legacy project, but no amount of optimism can cover the fact that the convenience of having an airport on the same bank of the estuary as Freetown, obviating the need for a long ferry trip, does not justify the cost,” concludes Africa Confidential.

After fifty-six years of gaining independence from British colonial rule and in spite of its huge natural resource revenue potential of over $2 billion a year – with a population of just over six million people, Sierra Leone is rated as one of the poorest nations in the world. The country depends on foreign aid for most of its public spending budget.

Less than half the country’s adult population would live to see their 51st birthday. Health service is a death trap, because of the lack of trained doctors, poorly equipped hospitals, and poor access to medicines. Education is sub-standard compared to other countries in Africa. Fewer than 20% of the population have access to electricity and clean drinking water.

Sierra Leone is one of the most dangerous countries for a woman to give birth, with a survival rate of less than 70%. Survival rate for newly born children is appalling – with about 40% unlikely to see their 5th birthday.

Unemployment in Sierra Leone is disturbingly high.  Over 70% of the economically active population are  out of work; and more than 60% of youths unlikely to have ever worked. Less than 37% of the population can read and write.

The country’s economy has seen its fair share of bad political management, civil war and health epidemic – Ebola. The economy is struggling to survive due to lack of investments, and competition from neighbouring countries in attracting foreign investors.

Sierra Leone is massively dependent on foreign aid and public debt. The country cannot feed itself. Millions of dollars are spent every month on importing its staple food – rice.

President Koroma and senior ministers believe that to fix Sierra Leone’s economic and social problems, there is the urgent need for a new international airport – a decision that most analysts and the World Bank say is seriously misguided. The country simply cannot afford it, nor is it a priority.

The existing airport – the Lungi International Airport, has the capacity to receive thousands of passengers a day, but actual average daily passenger arrivals is just over 100.

The airport which is now being partly managed by a British company, has received millions of dollars from the World Bank to pay for expansion, upgrading of the runway and facilities to bring it up to international standards. Still, passenger numbers are struggling to rise.

At a cost of $400 million, and with the competing priorities facing the government – health, access to clean water, provision of electricity, education, housing, road renewals and improvement, waste management and sanitation – why is the Koroma government determined to secure a loan package from China to pay Chinese workers to build a new international airport that will be managed by the Chinese for a fee?

The ruling APC is desperate to be re-elected next year and will do anything to achieve a third term in office, including piling up the country’s indebtedness to the rest of the world for an airport that many regard as a white elephant, while people die in hospitals for lack of medicines and poverty.

8 Comments

  1. Why can’t they just build a bridge from Lungi to Freetown? If they are really concerned about ships going through Tagrin Bay into the Atlantic, a study can be for an underground tunnel. People are not coming to Sierra Leone because it’s a destitute country for the reasons listed in the article.

    The Sierra Leone government needs to fix the country’s infrastructures in all areas before any company thinks of establishing roots here. Didn’t one of the journalists at the Telegraph (or maybe I read it form somewhere else) say that the reason why Koroma wants a second airport is because he wants to demolish Lungi airport to widen the bay for his Chinese friends to come and go as they please in Sierra Leone’s waters?

  2. I have always said and will continue to say that the future of Sierra Leone lies in 2 things: agricultural and tourism. And tourism will never take root or flourish if Lungi Airport remains the gateway to Freetown and those beautiful, pristine beaches of the peninsula which are virtually second to none in West Africa.

    Why is The Gambia, also 6 hours of flight from Europe, a magnet to tourists when it cannot boast a fraction of our beaches? Because Banjul is easily accessible! You land at the airport and by the time you realise, you are in your hotel winding down.

    Not so for Sierra Leone where it take you a stressful and perilous several hours journey across the sea on old ferries or so leaky speedboats to reach Freetown, etc. It’s even a shame when you take a visitor to Salone via Lungi for the first time.

    With Mamamah airport will come more tourists, then more hotels and an expanded and developed hospitality industry and more investors etc, etc. You do not need the World Bank, IMF and Africa Confidential to tell you that. In fact they will never tell you those good things that will free your country from the economic slavery to dependency on the West.

    Think for yourself and think BIG!! $300 million to catapult Sierra Leone into the tourist haven; that potentially is chicken change which even a small time Nigerian businessman can dash out, without shaking his pocket so to speak. We must give a thumbs up to President Koroma for this brilliant venture called the Mamamah Airport.

    • We have to support the development of Sierra Leone by agreeing with president Koroma on the Mamamah airport project.

  3. Seems to me that the economy is so bad, they need to put their own people to work. Produce jobs, and educate the people. How can a country survive with 70% unemployment. How can the leaders be proud of a country when they let their own people down – depending on other countries to provide for the people.

    Why don’t they have hands on training for Doctors and nurses, as well as other jobs. The more they school the people in Sierra Leone the more the country will grow. Just commonsense would be a great help.

  4. This government like those before have failed its people. The proposed Mamamah should NOT be even considered. In my view it is the last gasp effort of this set of APC to fill their pockets before ‘handing’ over to the next set of greedy and exploitative APC young breeds.

    Mamamah is no brainer had it not been that their aim is to further destroy the economy and continue to pile pressure on the deprived and under privileged. My anger is the lack of education in our country.

    Very few people know about the economics of running a country; standing up for their rights; asking questions and bringing the defaulters to justice. The government has made no effort to educate the ordinary people, and as a result most people toe the line of the government.

    My hope is that Sierra Leoneans will not allow themselves to be bullied into doing something they are not allowed to engage in.

    • Does America listen to the UNITED NATIONS when told not to wage war in Iraq? What have the so-called international agencies done to prevent North Korea from making dangerous weapons? How far have they gone to stop ISIS and other terrorist groups from killing innocent people?

      Like the APC government, those so-called international agencies have failed to address the world’s problems. It is best if they mind their business and leave Sierra Leone alone.

      Sierra Leone’s economy started flourishing after the war, what happened next? Instead of war, this time, they injected killer virus (Ebola) into animals by killing our people in order to distract the government and perish economic growth. They always want to loan us rather than helping us. Be wise guys, those international organisations are witch hunting Africa for its resources for the betterment of the West.

  5. We do not need IMF, World Bank, EU or any other donor agency. It is our Country and we will do whatever we want.

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