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.