A plan to build a transformational international airport in Sierra Leone will go ahead in December after years of delay, China’s outgoing ambassador to the poverty-stricken African country has said.
To be sited near the town of Mamamah, about 100km northeast of the capital of Freetown, the airport has been a flagship ambition for President Ernest Bai Koroma (pictured above with China’s President Xi Jinping).
It is also key to China’s planned mining operations in the country.
But the decision to build it rested with China’s Export-Import Bank, which had earmarked around $315m to fund the scheme in 2011 only to be put off by the double whammy of the worldwide slump in commodity prices and the 2014 ebola epidemic.
Now, however, China has signalled a readiness to move forward.
Zhao Yanbo, China’s ambassador to Sierra Leone, made the announcement during the country’s independence celebrations last week.
"Sierra Leone needs this airport for economic growth, job creation and easier access," he said, reported local media.
"It is going to be built inland from the capital and will be less than one hour drive which makes it very accessible to all at all times."
He said that work on site would start in December and should be completed within three years.
Zhao added that even though he would not be in the country when the project is commissioned, he was happy that before leaving he had done everything possible for it to come to fruition.
China agreed in principle to fund the airport in 2011 and China International Railway Group was appointed contractor in 2012.
Back then the rationale for the airport was that Sierra Leone’s economy was growing at 17% a year thanks to exports of diamonds, bauxite and rutile, a titanium oxide ore.
At the same time its existing international airport at Lungi is on the wrong side of Tagrin Bay, requiring passengers to take a ferry to Freeport, and it has a capacity of only 170,000 passengers a year.
Just before the ebola outbreak China was planning a $6-10bn programme of works to exploit the massive iron deposits at Tonkolili. As well as setting up a mine, there will be a 250km railway running south to a new deepwater port at Sulima, a smelting facility, a 350MW hydropower plant and an industrial park.
But then the collapse of commodity prices and the outbreak of ebola in May 2014 combined to ruin the country’s economy and drastically cut the number of people willing to travel there.
This prompted the Chinese to put the airport on hold, amid negative assessment from the World Bank, which said the government should be spending its money on developing the health sector and expanding Lungi.
The IMF was harsher. It called Mamamah a "vanity project" and claimed that it would end up costing Sierra Leone 11% of its GDP.
Elsewhere in the region, it has just been announced that Roberts Airport in Liberia is to get a $50m loan to build a terminal a rehabilitate its runway. This is to be another project financed by China’s Exim Bank.
The project was sealed by Liberian president Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf’s visit to China last year. Â
At present the airport has one terminal containing small shops selling duty free, biscuits and soft drinks. The airport handled 167,000 passengers in 2014.
Image: Done deal: presidents Koroma and Jinping in China last year (Ministry of Foreign Affairs, China)