THE POLITICAL ECONOMY OF SIERRA LEONE’S $2 BILLION BRIDGE

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By Abu Bakarr Jalloh

Sierra Leone’s President Julius Maada Bio has last month launched an ambitious $2 billion infrastructure project to build an 18 kilometer bridge that links the capital city Freetown to the country’s only international airport in Lungi.

“…the tender process must be competitive, transparent, corruption-free, and must offer the best value for money,” President Bio said in his keynote speech opening the tender process for building the Freetown-Lungi Bridge.

Sierra Leone’s policies are geared towards liberalization of politics and the economy promoted by lending institutions such as the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF). The West African country has held four general elections since its first competitive elections in 1996, including in 2018 when Bio won the presidency.
Moreover, over the years the country has received huge Foreign Direct Invest (FDI) not only in mineral extraction and agriculture but also road infrastructure. Sierra Leone’s economy is heavily dependent on natural resources. Minerals worth $1.1 billion accounted for 71 percent of export revenue in 2012, according to the Ministry of Mines and Mineral Resources (MMR).

Elite politicians seem to understand that quality infrastructure and good governance attract FDI and grow the economy. Therefore, building the Freetown-Lungi bridge has always been a campaign promise of both the ruling Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP) and main opposition All People Congress (APC), the two political parties that have dominated politics since the country gained independence in 1961.

Democracy was reconstructed after a brutal civil war that lasted from 1991–2002, killing over 70,000 people and displacing about half of the population. The 7 million residents of this former British colony which has a GDP per capita of only about $1,000 suffer from some of the world’s highest
maternal and infant mortality rates.

Floating Coffin

Sierra Leone’s economy comprises of the natural resource sector, non-resource tradable sector (agriculture and manufacturing), and the non-tradable sector (tourism, transportation, construction,
infrastructure, energy, health, education etc). Therefore, the $2 billion investment in road infrastructure is expected to grow the economy and reduce poverty.

But many Sierra Leoneans have always been pessimistic about building the bridge, arguing that it is impossible or unaffordable and politicians are not sincere when making campaign promises. One of Sierra Leone’s top musicians, Emmerson Bockarie, who sings against bad governance and political corruption, predicted in one of his songs that Freetown-Lungi bride won’t happen until the end of the world.

“I am not going to believe until I see they start building the bridge,” said Mariatu Koroma, a trader who transports her fruits and vegetables from Lungi to Freetown daily. Transportation service by sea between Freetown and Lungi is provided by public and privately run ferries, and wooden boats. “I have always been afraid of drowning in the middle of the sea one day,” answered Mariatu, when asked about the risk and dangers she takes to board public ferries or wooden boats.

The risk many passengers take to make the 45 minute sea journey between Freetown and Lungi onboard public ferries or wooden boats reflect the poor transportation infrastructure in the country.

“I have to risk it and take the wooden boats sometimes if I miss the public ferry and must be at work on time,” said a lady who works at the international airport. The lady who preferred her name to be confidential said she commutes from Lumley, far-west part of Freetown, to Lungi airport.

Local media and civil society organizations have always highlighted the dangers and risk many Sierra Leoneans have to go through daily. The Standard Times Press Newspaper has described the M.V Mahera public ferry as “floating coffin”.

The public ferries with hundreds or thousands of passengers onboard have been on several occasions rescued after experiencing mechanical breakdown in the middle of the sea. Moreover, reports of wooden boats capsizing in the sea are common, especially during the rainy season. Sierra Leone is prone to disasters. A deadly mudslide that swept through Freetown in 2017 killed over 1000 people.

The risk, overcrowding and inconvenience of public ferries and wooden boats have created a lucrative market for private investors in sea transportation. Sea Coach Express, Sea Bird Express and Sovereign Ferries, the three private companies that provide sea transportation service, charge $40 per passenger for their luxurious 30 minute sea journey from Lungi airport to Freetown or Freetown to Lungi airport, in a country where the average monthly salary is about $60. In comparison, public ferries and wooden boats charge between Le5000 (about $0.5) to Le13000 (about $1.5) per passenger.

However, private ferries save the upper-middle class and wealthy from going through experience associated with risky, inconvenient and overcrowded public ferries and wooden boats that a large majority of passengers have to deal with every day. The private ferries have also helped make the tourism sector attractive with increase in employment opportunities.

Therefore, the Freetown-Lungi Bridge might not only make access to the airport easy but also reduce risk and increase trade and economic activities. The Bridge will serve as an alternative road from Freetown to Conakry, the capital city of Guinea that Sierra Leone trades with in various produces including agriculture.

“The news of building the bridge is good,” said Ibrahim Kamara, a trader who usually transports rice from Freetown to Lungi by public ferries. He said he expects the completion of the bridge to increase the number of his customers beyond Lungi to across towns and villages close to Kambia district in the Sierra Leone-Guinea border.

Toll rates

Large-scale investment in Sierra Leone has always been an issue that gives rise to endless controversy, especially FDI in mineral extraction, agriculture and road infrastructure. The disagreement has always been about how to distribute benefit and cost. Ordinary Sierra Leoneans could pay huge cost for large-scale investment and benefit little in the form of quality education, healthcare and electricity.

According to Sierra Leone Human Rights Commission, FDI in mineral extraction and agriculture involving private businesses such as Addax Bioenergy and African Minerals from 2010-2014 was associated with “forced land acquisition, labour-related rights abuses, environmental degradation
and pollution, forced displacement, poor resettlement of locals, unfavorable land lease agreements, and restricted movements of local community members.”

Former president Earnest Bai Koroman’s APC administration that showed great support for Addax Bio Energy and African Minerals attracted fierce public criticism in 2017 over the introduction of a toll road on the 62 Km Wellington-Massiaka highway upgraded to a four-lane dual carriageway. The
project was the result of a Public Private Partnership (PPP) agreement between the government of Sierra Leone and the China Railway Seventh Group (CRSG).

According to the government, CRSG, a Chinese state-owned construction firm, funded the $150 million project with a concession loan to be repaid by toll gate charges over a period of 27 years. Vehicles have to pay between 2, 000 Leones (about $2) and 973, 000 Leones (about $105) any time they have to cross one of the three gates between Freetown and the 14 districts including Port Loko that hosts the Lungi airport, and Kambia and Pujehun that share border with Guinea in North-West and Liberia in South-East respectively.

The toll road was unpopular because many were concerned about markets’ reaction or increase in prices of transportation and basic commodities such as food and fuel. Moreover, the SLPP, then the main opposition, accused the then APC administration of lacking transparency and awarding a “no-bid contract” to CRSG.

Now in the opposition, APC describes the $2 billion Freetown-Lungi Bridge project as fallacy. “….I just think it is a fallacy, in fact it is not going to happen,” said Karamoh Kabba, APC’s Assistant Organizing Secretary. Kabba, a former minister of State, Eastern Region in the Koroma administration, made the statement on Wednesday during an exclusive interview at the APC office in Freetown.

“This is just like a façade to satisfy disenchanted population over the performance of the SLPP government,” Kabba said. He argued that given the political and economic situation in the country, Sierra Leone could not afford a $2 billion loan, which according to him would take 100 years to
repay.
He calculated that building a new international airport on the mainland makes more economic sense than building the bridge, referencing the $400 million Mamamah international airport project launched by the APC but canceled by the Bio administration in 2018. Instead of the bridge, he said the government should promote FDI in mineral extraction that could generate enough revenue in the form of taxes and royalties to subsidize public service such as healthcare and education.

“We believe infrastructural investments should not burden the country with huge debt. They should be financed in a way that the public and future generations are not liable for that debt,” President Bio said at the launching, suggesting that the $2 billion is not going to add to the public debts. “So we are not going to build a bridge or an airport for which the people of Sierra Leone are going to pay back a high- interest loan for 10, 20, or 30 years. That simply does not make economic sense,” the President added.

According to the government, the Freetown-Lungi Bride is going to be a PPP agreement and the $2 billion will be recouped through toll charges over a period of 20 to 25 years. PPP allows investors to run low risk and borrow money from financial markets at low interest rate.

However, a video making rounds on social media and featuring the Chairman of the Presidential Infrastructure Initiatives, Dr. John Edward Tambi, dropped a few hints that the toll rates might be high. Dr. Tambi’s suggestion that toll gates at the bridge might charge according to the number of passengers left many wondering what he meant by $10 per passenger. Are toll gates at the bridge going to charge according to the number of passengers or according to the size, weight and category of vehicles?

“We strongly discourage bribery, kickbacks, red tape, and other murky transactions and practices around infrastructural investments. This government and this country strongly discourage corruption,” President Bio assured.

In part because of rampant corruption and weak institutions, for millions of Sierra Leoneans, democracy means increased insecurity and free markets are where the rich seem to get richer at the expense of everyone else.

A demonstration organized on May 31 by the opposition to protest against a high court ruling that revoked the parliamentary seats of ten APC MPs turned violent. The violent confrontation at the APC office in Freetown between the police and protesters that left several demonstrators seriously
injured suggested that Sierra Leone is still burdened by a history of political violence.

Moreover, increase in FDI in mineral extraction, agriculture and road infrastructure seems to increase unemployment, urbanization, prices of basic commodities, poverty and the number of people living in slums fraught with poor sanitation and diseases. Sierra Leone was one of three West African countries, including Guinea and Liberia, which were plagued by the catastrophic 2014 Ebola outbreak that killed over 11000 people.

Will Mariatu’s profit increase or decrease by transporting her fruits and vegetable through the bridge? Will the lady who works at the airport have to spend more on transportation and less on basic necessities due to high toll rates? Will the bridge fall short of Ibrahim Kamara’s high expectation of increase in number of customers?
The bridge should not result into sharp increase in transportation and prices of basic commodities while public service such as education, healthcare, electricity and transportation are poor or inaccessible for majority of Sierra Leoneans.

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