CHINA-SL RELATIONSHIP: BRIDGE OVER TROUBLED WATERS

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By Andrew Keili

I, more than anyone else realize the effect of having to eat your words and change position when faced with reality. As a young Engineer at Sierra Rutile in charge of Mine Planning, I thought I knew it all when I drew production plans and would berate operating personnel who would find it challenging to meet “simple targets”. Well, I was transferred to operations to be in charge of a few processing plants and at the end of the first quarter realized that I was finding it difficult to meet production targets. I blurted out in frustration at a meeting with my team: “Who is the idiot that fixed such a target? Bring me the Mine Plan.” On examining it, I saw my signature written with a flourish at the bottom. I could sense my subordinates chuckling. Needless to say, I was a much better planning Engineer when I eventually went back to my old job.

I could draw a corollary with the recent trooping of the President and key Ministers to China to meet their “new found friends”. The SLPP had been livid with China for its rapprochement with the APC government which went beyond national infrastructure development issues to accusations of Chinese interfering into electoral politics at the behest of the APC and accusations of Chinese helping to build a new massive headquarter office for the APC. The latter was however denied by the APC but doubts persisted.

The SLPP’s en masse visit to China is not the first time a government has had such a volte face. I recall that when APC came to power in 2007, the expectation was that the new government was going to put SLDC (the previous name for African Minerals) through the grinder. Moseray Fadika and Frank Timis had been accused by the APC of being too pally with the SLPP and of having needless “freebies” to the detriment of the nation. Well, things turned out to be the opposite. President Koroma was later accused of giving inordinate concessions to Timis’s African Minerals in both the mining and oil sectors.

I suppose the moral of these stories is that there are no permanent enemies in such relationships and reality is the driving force. But let’s get back to the recent visit to China by the President and his team. Apart from other agreements reached, the issue of the Lungi bridge dominated the news. President Bio had engaged the PowerChina International Group Ltd. on the construction of the Lungi Bridge. The President was said to have always kept the massive project “very close to his heart”.

The idea of a bridge to Lungi is not however new. The APC derided President Kabbah for what they said was his proverbial Lungi bridge which he always talked about but never moved beyond the rhetoric. And, believe it or not President Koroma also embraced the Lungi bridge idea promising the Paramount Chief of Kaffu Bullom at a public meeting during the campaign for the 2012 elections that the APC government will construct a bridge linking Tagrin with Freetown.

Over the course of Koroma’s presidency, Chinese companies secured large iron ore concessions and built roads including a £115m toll road. China became one of the largest importers of Sierra Leone’s fish and timber.

Well, well President Bio seems to be truly following in the footsteps of his predecessors. According to the President Freetown was too congested and the construction of the bridge would not only reduce that congestion but would also promote economic development, promoting tourism. AWOKO cites the Chief Minister as saying “constructing a bridge would mean increased traffic for flights and passengers which was why an expansion of the airport must go with the construction of the bridge”. Apparently, the President of PowerChina International Group Ltd will meet later with the Government to discuss issues related to a feasibility study, detailed financing and design concepts.

Of course, there were agreements of various forms of rapprochement with China during the visit exemplified by the number of Ministers who went with the team. China has obviously contributed immensely to our infrastructural development since we established diplomatic relations under President Stevens in 1971. As a country we should however be mindful of some pitfalls with Chinese development assistance for infrastructure.

For the past nine years, China has overtaken US as Africa’s largest trading partner. Chinese infrastructure projects stretch all over Africa. There have however been a few white elephant projects. Countless new projects are now funded by Chinese commercial loans. Research has however shown many African countries are significantly or highly vulnerable to debt distress from the loans – In Djibouti with IMF figures showing its public external debt swelling from 50% to 85% of GDP in two years. One observer states – “The risk for African borrowers relates to the project’s profitability. Will they able to generate enough economic activity through these projects to repay these loans? Or are the projects seen more as ribbon-cutting opportunities?

The government should obviously not be oblivious to what has befallen other countries and should be circumspect about what type of assistance to seek from China.  The irony however is that in Sierra Leone history keeps repeating itself. There has also been an MOU signed in relation to 200 buses to be obtained from China-to the sceptic, reminiscent of the now infamous “Chinese bus saga” by the previous Government. Even the Finance Minister to whom the mention of a toll road was anathema is now saying we could recoup the investment from the Lungi bridge by having a toll bridge- “Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme”! The government to its credit has said any arrangements will be subject to scrutiny to ensure we have value for money and that nothing is yet cast in stone.

And who says we do not need infrastructure? It is estimated that an annual investment of at least $40 billion per year is required to address Africa’s infrastructure deficits. The infrastructure gaps widen further with population growth and urbanization. Africa’s “infrastructure deficit” constrains per capita growth by at least 2% each year and the infrastructure gaps also reduces productivity of firms by as much as 40%. These statistics are so apt for Sierra Leone. However, a review of our infrastructural statistics would indicate that we have a long way to go even to get to the starting line. This will continue impacting adversely on development. Our major problem is that we have not even maintained our infrastructural facilities, let alone catered for any expansion. The government obviously does not have the money to do so. Most infrastructural Ministries have not got the capacity or even remotely the level of funding to cope with these problems.

Infrastructure funding and bilateral loans from the traditional European investors have dwindled substantially in recent years and China is currently a major funding source for infrastructure in many African countries.

On the whole issue of investment in infrastructure and transport, it is high time we took a closer look at the operation of the National Commission for Privatisation (NCP) and the Public Private Partnership (PPP) unit at the Vice President’s Office. They both have laudable aims and have a role to play in infrastructure investments. The NCP was formed because many of the SOEs had become a burden on Government. The divestiture and reform of these public has taken far too long and it would appear that for a long time, NCP has not been keeping to its strategic plans developed and has been intervening into investment issues in these enterprises without the right type of specialist advice. The rot with our SOEs still continues and successive governments continue appointing often ineffective and interventionists rubber stamping Boards for these enterprises. Many enterprises to be divested are highly indebted and private sector participation in their existing form may be difficult.

The PPP is meant to promote, facilitate and streamline conclusion and implementation of public private partnership. It considers each PPP Project proposal developed by a contracting authority, with the accompanying feasibility study, and gives recommendations to the applicable contracting authority as to whether the proposed PPP Project should go ahead. Issues addressed include affordability to the contracting authority, ensuring value for money, risks involved and general feasibility.

The new Government now also has an infrastructure adviser embedded in State house.

The government through the auspices of all of these organisations and people should ensure that projects sought after do not become white elephants and that we get value for money. Lots of views have been proffered on the Lungi bridge project and there have been compelling views for and against. Some sceptics have referred to it as “SLPP’s Mamamah”, reasoning that if Mamamah was deemed not to provide value for money then the same would apply to the Lungi bridge which would cost considerably more. Government spokesmen have said they are not the same and Lungi provides a lot more spin off economic benefits especially to the tourist industry. You be the judge!

What can however be said is that Presidents have every right to dream and think big. They should have a wider long-term vision of the country. However, considering we now have an Economic Development Ministry and are developing a new National Development Plan, we have various bodies with the mandate to further scrutinize the feasibility of projects. It behooves all of these groups not to be rubber stamp bodies but to do the needful and advise rationally rather than grovel. Talking about groveling, I recall the story during my tennis playing days of a renowned top government official who was a tennis partner to the Vice President C.A, Kamara Taylor. The joke that made the rounds was that he got bald by pulling out his hair out in frustration every time C.A. missed the ball but when C.A. looked towards him he would smile to him and say. “Hard luck Sir, well tried!”

Indeed, there may be many big projects that may warrant consideration in our national infrastructure apart from roads and electricity. A few come to mind-Orogu dam and other water supply projects, new bridge projects linking important economic centers, housing projects. Bonthe infrastructure renewal etc. The issue of prioritisation in the face of resource constraints would loom large in the decision-making process.

For now, it would seem that we should welcome Chinese investments, albeit with some caveats. Apart from obviously making sure they provide value for money, there are nagging issues about the transparency of contracts, local content issues especially relating to training and empowerment of Sierra Leoneans and workers’ conditions as well as environmental concerns. Truth be told, the Chinese bring to the table needed skills and a strong work ethic but we must seek our interest as a nation.

Let us hope the bridge we are building with the Chinese is not only the Lungi bridge but a true bridge over troubled waters according to the lyrics of “Bridge over troubled waters”.

When you’re weary, feeling small

When tears are in your eyes, I’ll dry them all (all)

I’m on your side, oh, when times get rough

And friends just can’t be found

Like a bridge over troubled water

I will lay me down

Like a bridge over troubled water

I will lay me down

I rather like someone’s metaphorical reference to the Lungi bridge issue on social media (I missed the name so cannot accredit him-but hope he will not mind me reproducing it).

“It’s really not only the Lungi bridge we need! The country needs to construct numerous ‘bridges’ to mind the gaps in various facets of our social, economic and political life. We hastily need a ‘bridge’ to stem the alarming rate of deterioration of our educational system. We need a ‘bridge’ to improve our political life and make it less ALL embracing and curb the winner takes it all syndrome. We need ‘bridges’ to galvanize inter-tribal cohesion and trust. Yes, we need dynamic ‘bridges’ to ferry the numerous lost youths endlessly roaming the streets back into productive livelihood. And we need a serious ‘bridge’ to activate our focus on building nationhood for the next generation! Bridges, Bridges, Bridges, we must build…”

Welcome back home to President Bio and his team and may they continue building not only infrastructure bridges with China but bridges right across the socio-economic “troubled waters” of the country.

Ponder my thoughts.

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Abu Bakarr Tarawally is a Journalist based in Freetown. He works for the Sierra Leone Broadcasting Corporation as a radio producer. He has once served as Editor for a few newspapers in Freetown, including Sierra Express Media, The Exclusive Newspaper and his own newspaper, the Daily Express Publications. He is a teacher trainer, and loves writing and reading a lot. Email: abstarawally@gmail.com. Call +232 88601277 or +2327661303.

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