The Sierra Leone government terminated a $400 million scheme to build a new airport with Chinese labour and loans, according to a letter written by the country’s minister of transport and aviation, reviewed by Reuters.
The plan – one of many Chinese infrastructure projects proliferating across Africa in the last two decades – was repeatedly criticised by international financial institutions for the additional burden it placed on Sierra Leone’s external debt.
In the letter dated October 5, transport and aviation minister Kabineh Kallon told the project manager government would terminate the contract to build the airport at the end of October, formalising a decision announced in June.
“After serious consideration and due diligence, it is government’s view it is uneconomical to proceed with construction of a new airport when the existing one is grossly under-utilised,” Kallon said. Kallon declined to comment on the letter when contacted by Reuters.
The new airport in Mamamah, outside 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, days before the election that pushed his party out of power.
His successor, President Julius Maada Bio, criticised the airport plan during his campaign as “a sham project” and disparaged other Chinese infrastructure schemes.
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 Freetown to the existing Lungi airport, presently 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 the bridge was a central part of government’s drive to improve services at Lungi.
Power China International is scheduled to visit Sierra Leone this month to evaluate the bridge project’s feasibility and to discuss financing options.
Sierra Leone accumulated more than $220 million Chinese debt in the last 10 years according to the Johns Hopkins China-Africa Research Initiative, which estimates African countries’ collective debt to China at about $130 billion.