October 11, 2018 / 5:25 PM / 2 months ago

Sierra Leone axes plan to build Chinese-funded airport

FREETOWN, Oct 11 (Reuters) - Sierra Leone’s government has terminated a $400 million scheme to build a new airport with Chinese labour and loans, according to a letter written last week by the country’s minister of transport and aviation, reviewed by Reuters.

The plan - one of many Chinese infrastructure projects that have proliferated across Africa in the last two decades - had repeatedly been criticised by international financial institutions for the additional burden it would place on Sierra Leone’s external debt.

In the letter dated Oct. 5, transport and aviation minister Kabineh Kallon told the project’s manager that the government would terminate the contract to build the airport as of the end of October, formalising a decision announced in June.

“After serious consideration and due diligence, it is the government’s view that it is uneconomical to proceed with the construction of a new airport when the existing one is grossly under utilized,” Kallon said. Kallon declined to comment when contacted by Reuters about the letter.

The new airport in the village of Mamamah, outside the capital Freetown, was a flagship project of former president Ernest Bai Koroma, who after four years of negotiations and delays signed a loan agreement in March this year, just days before the election that pushed his party out of power.

His successor, President Julius Maada Bio, had criticised the airport plan during his campaign as “a sham project” and disparaged other Chinese infrastructure schemes.

However, during a visit to Bejing last month Bio proposed a new plan to state-backed Chinese firm Power China International to build a bridge linking the capital Freetown to the existing Lungi airport, which is now accessible only by boat or helicopter.

The bridge project is estimated to cost $1.3 billion - more than four times the cost of the new airport. Chief Minister David Francis told journalists last month that the bridge was a central part of the government’s drive to improve services at Lungi.

Power China International is scheduled to visit Sierra Leone later this month to evaluate the bridge project’s feasibility and to discuss potential financing options.

Sierra Leone has accumulated more than $220 million of Chinese debt in the last 10 years according to the Johns Hopkins China-Africa Research Initiative, which estimates African countries’ collective debt to China to be about $130 billion. (Editing by Alessandra Prentice Editing by Peter Graff)

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