Sierra Leone cancels China-backed international airport

Sierra Leone has cancelled a troubled $400m airport development that was funded by China on the grounds that it already has one that is operating well below capacity.

The Mamamah International Airport would have been located near to Freetown, Sierra Leone’s capital, and would have taken over from the country’s current main airport in the town of Lungi.

Lungi airport, a former British air base with an annual passenger capacity of 170,000, is located on the other side of the Freetown estuary, requiring visitors who land there to travel by boat to Freetown. Despite the small size of Lungi, it is far from reaching capacity.

Mamamah Airport was an initiative of former Sierra Leone president Ernest Bai Koroma, but a new government led by Julius Maada Bio, elected in April 2018, decided there was no business case for it.

The Daily Nation, quotes a letter sent by the government to the director of the Mamamah project. It said: "After serious consideration and due diligence, it is government’s view that it is uneconomical to proceed with the construction of a new airport when the existing one is grossly under-utilised".

When first announced in 2011, Sierra Leone’s economy was booming, mainly due to a surge in the price of iron ore, the country’s main export.

Former Sierra Leone president Koroma and Jinping in China in 2015 (Ministry of Foreign Affairs, China)

It is unclear how much work on the project had been completed, but Balogun Koroma, the minister of transport and aviation, told a local news site in early 2016 that Mamamah would be constructed "at all costs".  

"We cannot allow this project to be killed," he said, "as the Chinese construction team has already done all the basic work and they are just waiting for the contract to be signed."

When announced, the development came under scrutiny from the International Monetary Fund, which told Africa Confidential that the plan was a "vanity project".

The fund recently travelled to Sierra Leone, and published a report, saying the country’s "economic environment remains challenging, with output growth still recovering from the recent loss in iron ore mining and reduced activity in the non-mining sectors".

The World Bank was also against the project, and has previously invested $200m in upgrades to Lungi Airport.

In 2015, the Sierra Leone Telegraph, argued that President Koroma should "use common sense and compassion to focus on health, education, the provision of water and electricity, and forget about his politically inspired, crackpot and wasteful idea of building a grandiose second international airport, costing over $400m".

Despite the cancellation, the BBC quotes Wu Peng, China’s ambassador to Sierra Leone, saying: "I don’t think the airport project should affect our future bilateral relations."

Top image: A rendering of Mamamah International (Government of Sierra Leone)

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