Sierra Leone Telegraph: 2 October 2016
When Brussels Airlines last week informed the Koroma government of Sierra Leone that it may have to stop flying to Freetown if the government fails to address its concerns, there was a strong sense of foreboding that things are going to get worse for the country’s economy.
Other major airline carriers such as Gambian Bird and British Airways are yet to return to Sierra Leone, since they stopped flying to the West African country over a year ago, as a result of the Ebola crisis.
Last year a new airline – Fly Salone, established to mop up demand and fill the gap left behind after the departure of both British Airways and Gambian Bird collapsed, due to financial difficulties.
Since coming to power in 2007, president Koroma has been knocking hard on the doors of international investors to convince them that under his leadership, Sierra Leone is open for business. But not many have taken notice.
The reality is that confidence in the country’s economy as well as in the ability of the Koroma government to implement sound policies, establish the conditions upon which business can invest and thrive, and ensure good governance and law and order prevail, has remained weak.
This task has not been made any easier in a country where basic services and infrastructures, such as electricity, water supply, healthcare, education, waste management and sanitation, good road networks, management of the international airport, continue to be starved of much needed funds.
The government of Sierra Leone needs to attract and encourage massive private sector investments – at least $500 million a year for the next five years, if it is to diversify the country’s economy away from its sole reliance on mining, in the manner recommended by the IMF to grow the economy, create sustainable jobs, broaden its taxation base and produce wealth.
Although foreign investors need an educated and skilled workforce, reliable supply of water and electricity for their businesses to function, they must first of all be able to get into the country fairly easily and as conveniently as possible.
And this is what the government of Sierra Leone is failing to offer investors and tourists. Building a new airport, costing over $400 million, is not a viable economic option either.
But building a bridge across the Lungi to Freetown estuary, does not only make economic sense, it will bring much prosperity to surrounding communities and ease the safety and security risks for airline travellers.
Putting aside the shambolic manner with which the country’s international airport is being run, few airlines are willing to risk their investments in Sierra Leone because of the lack of passenger capacity.
The few that are currently plying the skies into Freetown, such as Air Maroc and Brussels Airlines, are experiencing tremendous difficulties transporting their passengers from the Airport at Lungi across to the capital Freetown.
A ferry service that should take no more than thirty minutes across a relatively shallow and short estuary, takes more than an hour, if it arrives at all.
At the worst of times, the unseaworthy ferry will either go aground or adrift almost into the Atlantic Ocean before being recovered.
The government says that it is desperate to attract investors and build its tourism industry.
But with a poorly managed international airport, a ferry service served by two old and unfit for purpose vessels, Sierra Leone’s tourism potential is systematically being destroyed by the very people elected to develop the industry and create wealth in one of the poorest nations of the world.
A recently constructed road leading from the airport at Lungi across Port Loko in the north of the country, then down into the capital Freetown, has become a magnet for highway robbers.
Tens of Thousands of Dollars in cash and property are stolen every month from travellers along the highway. The road itself has been described as a death trap, with rising fatal accidents.
According to Mr. Herman Carpentier of Brussels Airlines, speaking last Wednesday, 28th September 2016 to the Sierra Leone Embassy in Brussels – ‘the lack of an efficient and reliable ferry service from Lungi to Freetown is critical to the airline’s operations’.
He said the alternative road network from Lungi to Freetown via Port Loko is too cumbersome for overseas passengers to endure, after a long and exhaustive flight.
While the cost of doing business in Sierra Leone may not be the cheapest in the region, the government of Sierra Leone will need to do more to ensure that corruption and red tape do not kill the chicken that lays the golden eggs, such as Brussels Airlines.
The company has rejected directives from Sierra Leone officials demanding to travel to Brussels, to inspect the air safety of their aircraft – all costs fully paid by the Airline itself.
According to Sierra Leone embassy staff in Brussels, Mr. Carpentier, said that a letter dated 29 April, 2016 and signed by the Head of Flight Safety Standard, Joseph B. K. Fombo at the country’s civil aviation authority (SLCAA), has requested Brussels Airlines to “undergo a comprehensive surveillance review in accordance with ICAO DOC 8335 and SLCAA Part 10, and the State National Surveillance Programme.”
The letter further states that two Inspectors from SLCAA will conduct the inspection at the operational base of Brussels Airlines in Belgium from 13-14 June, 2016. Furthermore, Brussels Airlines should provide the air tickets, accommodation and per diem for the two SLCAA Inspectors at a total cost of Le 33,120,000 (Thirty Three Million One Hundred and Twenty Thousand Leones).
Mr. Carpentier said, the Belgian Civil Aviation Authority (BCAA) had already replied to the SLCAA’s correspondence, out-rightly rejecting the government of Sierra Leone’s inspection proposal.
But Mr. Carpentier disclosed that because of the refusal of Brussels Airlines to honour the SLCAA inspection request, the Authority’s management has refused to approve Brussels Airlines Winter flight schedules to Freetown.
He informed that Brussels Airlines is not the only airline that has objected to Sierra Leone government’s inspection proposal, but even Air France and other Airlines flying to Sierra Leone.
“I am not here to tell the Government of Sierra Leone what to do on these concerns that I have raised, because the government knows better. But if the government fails to address these issues, we have no alternative but to stop our operations, and Air France might also stop. We want to continue serving the people of Sierra Leone as we did during the difficult times of the Ebola crisis, and we hope we will reach out an amicable solution,” Mr. Carpentier concluded.
The government of Sierra Leone has so far failed to convince both British Airways and Gambian Airlines to return to Freetown, since they left in 2014. It will be a fatal blow to Sierra Leone’s economy, should the Koroma government fail to find a sensible compromise with Brussels Airlines.