President Bio and the Lungi bridge – modern day Nehemiah?

Andrew Keili: Sierra Leone Telegraph: 11 July 2019:

President Bio’s government has taken the bold step of launching the ambitious Lungi Bridge project to link Lungi with the Freetown mainland. This project has received rave reviews from most government supporters and derision from opposition quarters.

It is disconcerting to note however that views on the project more or less mirror the political division in this country, even among professionals in fields that are germane to such a project.

There have been criticisms of the bridge project-often caustic and sometimes constructive. One critic asked: “What are the public investment priorities of this Government? If one considers alternative Public investment opportunities for a $2.1 billion investment which are likely to yield far higher social and economic benefits than the Lungi Bridge, one would have reason to question this government’s priorities or motive………..this Paopanista Political Accounting gimmick does not add up and does not make sense to me until they come out clean and be transparent to the public, we should all oppose this project”.

Critics have generally doubted whether private investors would recoup their investments, given the lack of dynamic economic activities at Lungi and low vehicular traffic between Freetown and Lungi. One says thus about the form of the financing arrangements for the project – “It’s not cost-free to the state. The project will be financed by mining concessions, free hold land, state revenues, and airport revenues. It’s shocking if that’s how the bridge will be financed”.

This claim on the forms of financing arrangements have however been disputed by government functionaries.

To the government’s credit, the man put in charge of this project, the government’s head of the Presidential Infrastructure Initiatives unit is eminently qualified. Dr. John Tambi (Photo – with president Bio) is an Aviation and Transport Infrastructure Expert with more than 35 years of project management, planning, engineering, training, policy development, operations and economic analysis experience, specialising in air, road, sea and rail transport modes.

He served in NEPAD and in senior and executive positions with one of the world’s leaders in the Management of airports, ports, rail and transportation facilities – the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, USA for ten years, and in major international consulting firms. He holds a PhD and MSc in Transportation Planning and Engineering.

A friend of Dr Tambi, wrote: “Sierra Leone needs quantum leaps to explore infrastructure and technology as platforms for development. ….. I am impressed by the bridge project and particularly buoyed by someone like John Tambi being at the helm. Criticism and pressure to do a fine job is critically important but by the same token, let’s give him a chance to succeed”.

The President has tried to assuage the fears of critics by assuring them the project will be at no cost to government. In reality however, when one considers the scale of the investment and the fact that any investor would have to recoup this within 20 years, one can’t help but feel that this may only be possible if our economy grows in leaps and bounds based on the investment on the bridge and other associated activities like the airport, costal road, new city etc.

The Chairman of the Port Loko District Council, Councilor Ibrahim Santigie Bangura is buoyant about what this investment can do for Port Loko: “The economic chain is long and has also attachments which in total could bring job opportunities, industry and technology development at an accelerated level thereby positioning our district as the focal point of connectivity in the New Direction drive,” according to Chairman Bangura.

One may however also legitimately ask, why the obsession with Port Loko, which is one of the poorest Districts in the country with an estimated population of 614,000. The main economic activity apart from the airport is subsistence farming.

Other activities include fishing, commerce and animal husbandry. Port Loko also has a big, largely untapped mineral potential for iron ore and bauxite. There is good potential for advancement of agriculture with vast stretches of boli and mangrove ecologies. The District however remains abjectly poor with a poverty rate of 60%.

There are a few things worth noting about such a project. It is likely to affect the communities’ way of life, quality of life, livelihoods, etc. Project components can result in land take and resettlement.

There are several uncertainties about the feasibility of some of the sub projects planned and there certainly needs to be more community engagement. Community engagement is not an event with a distinct start and end; rather it should be a continuous process right throughout the project’s lifecycle.

The failure to prepare for projects through quality public consultation throughout the project cycle, and failure to carry out appropriate cost benefit analysis, feasibility studies and impact assessments, can result in poor decisions that cannot be reversed later, locking in negative impacts for people and the environment over many years.

We must expect the unexpected as with many public projects. Demand forecasting for public infrastructure projects is usually poor and the ridership for transport projects rarely meets projections.

Actual traffic on the Channel connecting England and France turned out to be only 18 per cent of predictions, one reason the consortium that built it went bankrupt.

With a considerable number of associated projects planned to “sweeten” things for any potential investor, the government must also be careful about low balling costs. Proponents of infrastructure projects normally believe in their social benefits and therefore deliberately low-ball costs and exaggerate benefits to secure the public’s approval.

History is replete with public projects that have gone way beyond the projected budget.

With at least $100 million profit required per year to repay costs (very simplistic estimate), there will obviously be a considerable number of legitimate questions related to various types of risks, any of which may put paid to the project. If, however this project is pulled off, the economy of the country will, as stated have to improve beyond all projections currently contemplated.

According to a recent analysis of the economy: “Continued economic growth will depend on rising commodities prices and increased efforts to diversify the sources of growth. Non-mining activities will remain constrained by inadequate infrastructure, such as power and roads, even though power sector projects”.

Repaying at least $100m a year amounts to one sixth of our national revenues, one eighth of our exports or a fifth of our foreign exchange reserves. Currently it is projected that real GDP will increase to 5.6% in 2019 and 5.8% in 2020 and that the main drivers of economic growth will be increased private agricultural and mining investment amid business climate reforms.

How far will economic growth be further bolstered by the bridge and other associated investments? Will the tourism and transportation sectors grow in leaps and bounds to help sustain such an investment?

It is obvious from the foregoing that President Bio’s government needs to answer a lot of questions on this project and not take criticism as an indication that people do not want the project to go ahead.

The President’s huge task and the criticisms faced is reminiscent of that faced by Nehemiah in the Bible who had a mission to rebuild the walls of Jericho. He defied the opposition of Judah’s enemies on all sides-Samaritans, Ammonites, Arabs and Philistines-and rebuilt the walls within 52 days. There are many aspects of Nehemiah’s actions that the President may wish to adopt.

Kudos to President Bio for being brave. Nehemiah teaches us a leader must be action oriented. He should attempt new things, take initiative, and work toward something.  Nehemiah not only had a heart for the city of Jerusalem, but he also acted.

Nehemiah showed the need for the work he planned to do by reminding the people that they were vulnerable without a city wall and were in a position of disgrace. President Bio and team have got to do a better job of convincing a sceptical public that this is a priority project in the midst of all our urgent national needs.

People could ask the following questions: Apart from the airport, what else is the attraction of Port Loko? If the issue is linking Freetown to other Districts, is Port Loko the District that will yield the greatest dividends? Is the real issue to be addressed that of the airport? Could a new city not be built elsewhere?

A leader must show the need (or problem) which he plans to solve. If he is going to have a vision for something that needs to change, he also must show the problem which that vision will solve. Otherwise, he will not get support or buy-in for his vision.

Nehemiah said, “let us” rebuild the walls of Jerusalem. He included himself and the people he was talking to in the work to be done. A leader realizes that work is a team effort. No leader can accomplish great things alone. Several communities will be affected by such a project. They need to be brought on board. The need for community participation is paramount.

There will obviously be critics. Some may be genuine and others not. When Nehemiah encountered opposition, he called together the people and told them not to be afraid and to keep persisting toward the goal.

A godly leader doing God’s work will not be stopped by earthly opposition. He may be delayed or slowed down but not stopped. Furthermore, a godly leader takes initiative to prevent the people he leads from being discouraged.

Nehemiah was focused on the work of rebuilding the city of Jerusalem and as a result did not allow himself to be distracted by Sanballat and Tobiahs. Those working assiduously on the project should not unnecessarily get distracted by the “Sanballats and Tobiahs” in our society.

Every great project will have those who oppose it. Some out of ignorance, others out of downright maliciousness. The government should however have a plan in response so that supporters don’t give up.

A wise leader will evaluate the opposition in the light of the spirit and attitude in which criticism is given. He will also consider the voice to which the opposition listens.

Nehemiah also teaches us that as things change, the plan may need review and change. As problems were reported to Nehemiah, he addressed the issue by making other plans. Problems are bound to occur and demand that the plan be revisited.

President Bio and team must be prepared to change course and recalibrate if necessary in the light of new information.

Oswald Sanders observed:  “No leader is exempt from criticism, and his humility will nowhere be seen more clearly than in the manner in which he accepts and reacts to it.”

One very much hopes that the Lungi debate will become less partisan. The project team, as expected of such a project will undoubtedly engage in quality public consultation and carry out appropriate cost benefit analysis, feasibility studies and impact assessments and be ready to recalibrate as new evidence comes to light.

The apprehensions of dissenting voices should be listened to and properly addressed and the public educated. Whilst wishing that the project succeeds, we must not lose sight of the fact that some poor decisions cannot be reversed later and could lock in negative impacts for people, the environment and the economy over many years.

Ponder my thoughts.

9 Comments

  1. The question is then asked what is the other alternative (if any). Why Sierra Leoneans cannot be very supportive of this ambitious leader God has endowed upon us for God sake. The first and only leader who has come this far and I applaud him for his bold vision and God in his grace and favour will continue to guide and bless his vision for our beloved Sierra Leone.

    When Sierra Leoneans went to the national stadium and prayed for a good leader, God heard their fervent prayers and I am not going to be the one to condemn him like the Israelite did to Moses – God forbid. Please join me in congratulating our God sent president and long live President Maada Bio and God bless Sierra Leone.

  2. The Lungi bridge project like most other public projects as you rightly put it, sounds attractive to some and despised by critics. However, the reliance on personalities and their academic achievements have not in the past yielded the expected results or successfut outcome desired.

    The establishment of strong and effective systems to conduct public consultations, project cost benefit analysis, planning and evaluation as well as impact assessments on health,environment and community livelihood is highly required. This can be achieved with the involvement of different apolitical stakeholders such as professional bodies, community representatives, independent external experts etc.

    Also, as you rightly stated in your opening paragraphs, transparency is key, but in addition – clear channels for information flow and decision making, with accountability and repercussions for failure to implement or execute the project in line with recommendations.

  3. Excellent thoughts/advice, Mr. Rashid Thomas. The little that I may say regarding the proposed Lungi bridge is that it will cut down considerably on the the very frustrating time, risk, and efforts air travellers take and exert in crossing to and from Freetown by way of Lungi.

    The difficulty in getting over to Freetown from Lungi after long hours of air travel from many parts of the world is a often a major disincentive for business men/women, holiday makers (Sierra Leoneans and other nationals alike) and tourists to make the trip to the country.

    Indeed, every time one thinks of travelling to Freetown/Sierra Leone, the spectre of navigating the Lungi-Freetown connectivity often looms large in one’s consciousness, thereby dampening one’s spirit. It doesn’t have to be so. In addition to boosting the tourism sector of the country (with all the beautiful natural scenery and pristine beaches to behold in Sierra Leone), the bridge could also ease the enduring land scarcity in Freetown by providing citizens and residents needing lands for building or agriculture activities easy access to such land availability in Lungi.

    Such a bridge-link will also bring the northern part of the country closer to Freetown, leading to increase in economic growth and trade in the relevant rural areas. So, yes, while any Sierra Leonean government (be it APC or SLPP-led) should do a thorough cost benefit analysis as a condition precedent for embarking on such a landmark infrastructure development, a bridge over Lungi is worth the try.

    I certainly agree with the writer that the government needs to ratchet up its information system to ensure that the generality of the public are adequately educated on the strategic utility of the enterprise.

  4. We need the bridge to foster development and growth. You can envision the vast development along the Lungi road leading to the airport.
    This is one of the progresses that attract foreign investment. Accessibility.I hope there will be proper planning to develop the surrounding areas.

    Let us all come together and support our leaders and wish them good luck and success in all their endeavours and undertakings. Let them know that we are with them in our prayers. Love and good will to all Sierra Leoneans.

  5. I would be very surprised if any banker will ever make this loan because it can be reasonably foreseen that Sierra leone does not have the population that will generate the 100 million per year revenue expectation.

    The population is not more than six million and the vehicles on the road in the country may not be more than three hundred thousand and we expect to make one hundred million dollars from three hundred thousand vehicles from using the bridge, half of the vehicles may not come close to this bridge throughout the year let alone pay toll.

    I just hope the Chinese will not come and seize your country’s assets the way they have seized the national assets of some African countries, just because of their addiction to reckless acquisition of debt.

    If Sierra Leone must owe the Chinese, they should take one billion dollars and build 500 megawatt coal power station, build a factory that will turn your futile into an intermediate product and give both the factory and power station to contractors to run. The five hundred megawatt power plant will pay for itself in three years. When you have all these sources of income you may now confidently take a loan to build such a bridge to Lungi.

    • Adding to what you have said Godwin, why not use the US$2 Billion Dollars to train 3000 students (vocational and institutions of higher education) in Russia per year for ten years, make electricity 24hours available in the entire country and internet access throughout the country. By doing so, our country will be prepared for its manufacturing capabilities by 2031.

      With the manpower capabilities, electricity and access to the internet, all other areas of our development will boom. Adding to that, we will be heading to a full manufacturing STATE by 2050. How many Sierra Leoneans have cars and trucks that will be using the bridge every day? How many tourists do people think will enter the country because of the bridge?

      How many Sierra Leoneans have the financial means to travel overseas and back each year? What are the economic exchanges in terms of agricultural and manufacturing products per year between Freetown and the north that will warrant the construction of this bridge?

      The questions I have just asked are some of the key economic activities that will help pay for the bridge. But they are not just yet there in profitable numbers to help pay for the bridge through the toll system. DISCUSS/ARGUE. Because most of the population are very poor, people will prefer traveling to Freetown by boat or through the old route because, it will be cheaper. This is just common sense. The vehicles and boats don’t have to pay toll.

      I am not against the construction of the bridge whatsoever. The problem I have and will always have is the timing, the cost and the priority given to this project right now. People just talk and say that the bridge is a good thing and will bring immense benefits to the nation. But they never say how and back their statements with examples.

      Will all those talking about the immense economic benefits the bridge will bring try to explain and back their dreams with FACTS and not FAKES? People just use their freedom of speech for speech sake. Even when they see white, they say it’s off white. It’s really sad and pathetic that Sierra Leone is going to be like that till 2023. The struggle continues. I agree with you Mr. Godwin Kwushue and may GOD BLESS YOU

  6. It is a good idea but unfortunately not the best. Having this amount of money as loan and loading it on a single project can stifle the country’s economic development.

    I think THE best this MONEY can be used for is to build a completely new airport on the mainland and buy almost up to four new pontoons or ferries all almost at the cost of under five hundred million dollars ($500,000,000.00).

    The remaining one billion, six hundred million dollars (1,600,000,000.00) can be used to reconstruct many vital roads leading or going deep into the rural communities in the provinces for all to benefit from this huge loan. This will rather help to generate more revenue to repay the loan quickly.

  7. We should not be afraid of big challenges, yes the bridge is a huge investment but we need such projects to kick start our failing economy. We need a leader who can sell us a dream, inspire and lead . I applaud the President for this bold move . Let us support his dream and make Sierra Leone a 21st century nation.

    Look at countries like Mali, Senegal,Ethiopia and many other African nations are building their country to meet the 21st century needs. Road network links are the vein of any developing nation. I believe we have the resources, let us use it to benefit the country not individual personal bank account.

  8. Building the bridge is a long term investement. Let stop being shellfish. Let us think positive for our children. Stop comparing Sierra Leone with the west, or who ever built the wall in Jerusalem.

    I think if Pa Bio is ready to take the risk; why can’t we support and follow his decision. Lets not forget he is a democratically elected president. So we should give our support for this project. God bless Sierra Leone.

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