By Andrew Irumba
Sierra Leone’s new government has finally announced the cancellation of a controversial Chinese airport project sanctioned by its predecessor.
The construction of the $318 million airport, which began earlier this year, was being funded by a Chinese loan, which the government says it can’t afford to repay.
The proposed Mamamah International Airport is located just outside Freetown, designed to replace the current one in the town of Lungi, which is said to be an obstacle to the country’s development due to connectivity difficulties associated with it.
Lungi International Airport is located in the northern part of the country, just outside the capital city. It is separated from Freetown by an estuary which requires a ferry or boat journey to reach the capital.
Traveling from Lungi is tedious and the old government argued that it was affecting tourism and investment.
The new government, however, says the priority was to renovate the present airport and make it viable.
News of the termination of the project was revealed in a letter addressed to the director stopping all contracts relating to the construction.
“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,” it says.
The letter from the Ministry of Transport and Aviation noted that it had appointed an official to take inventory and provide oversight of the assets.
The proposed Mamamah International Airport, named after its host community, was being constructed by the China Railway Seventh Group, with funding from China Exim Bank.
The project also entailed the construction of a new city in the vicinity and an exclusive economic zone.
In March, a week before the General Election that brought Gen Maada Bio to power, former President Ernest Bai Koroma presided over the ground-breaking ceremony marking the beginning of the construction.
The airport was one of three major projects the Koroma-administration intended to be his legacy. The other two projects are the just-concluded port expansion and the planned bridging of the estuary that separates Freetown, from Lungi.
But it faced strong opposition from the start, especially the international donor agencies, the World Bank and IMF. They argued that the West African country had more important priorities than building a new airport, which would increase its debt burden.
As opposition presidential candidate, Gen Bio criticised the project during campaigns. But his government was also considering building a bridge linking the airport and the city, although through a fresh arrangement.