China suffers first setback in Africa as Sierra Leone cancels $300 million airport deal. African nations now owe China $130 billion Updated for 2021

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Updated: March 2, 2021


Chinese big business expansion in Africa, with loans which are hard to repay and can lead to assets takeover, has suffered its first public setback.

On Wednesday, Sierra Leone canceled plans to build a $318 million airport outside the country’s capital, Freetown. 

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“After serious consideration and diligence, it is the Government’s view that (it) is uneconomical to proceed with the construction of the new airport when the existing one is grossly under utilized,” said a letter from the country’s Minister of Transport and Aviation to the project’s director, published in local media.

The airport was to be built by state-backed China Railway Seventh Group described as an experienced builder of bridges and highways across Africa with funding from China Exim Bank.

According to CNN, Sierra Leone’s decision is the first time an African government has canceled an already announced, major China-backed deal.

China has been accused of operating a debt-trap diplomacy in Africa, offering loans that may be hard to repay and could lead to exploitative deals between China and African leaders.

In 2010, Beijing invested $1.5 billion in a Sri Lankan port. When the country couldn’t repay its debt, the facility was signed over to a Chinese-state owned company on a 99-year lease, CNN said.

Collectively, African countries owe China about $130 billion, according to the China-Africa Research Initiative, money which has mainly been used to fund transport, power and mining projects.

At this year’s Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) summit, a triennial meeting between Beijing and African heads of state, Chinese President Xi Jinping announced a further $60 billion in loans and aid for the continent.

In August, 16 United States senators warned their government, in a letter to Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, that “predatory Chinese infrastructure financing” was creating unsustainable levels of debt in the developing world, which the IMF was having to bail out.

Much of the debt was due to extravagant spending in support of Xi’s ambitious Belt and Road infrastructure program, which aims to build huge trade corridors linking China, Europe, Africa and the rest of Asia.

The controversial project in Sierra Leone was due to be completed in 2022 and had been commissioned by the previous president Ernest Bai Koroma in March this year.

CNN reported that “its cancellation comes amid cooling enthusiasm in both Pakistan and Malaysia for Chinese loans backing large-scale infrastructure projects in recent months”.

Speaking to the BBC on Wednesday, Sierra Leone’s Aviation Minister Kabineh Kallon said the current airport would be renovated instead.

“I do have the right to take the best decision for the country,” he said.  It’s unclear if there are any financial penalties associated with canceling the deal.

But China tried to downplay its first major project cancelation in Africa, saying that the project was still in an exploratory phase.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang told reporters Thursday the cancellation didn’t indicate any rift between China and Sierra Leone.

“When cooperating with African countries that include Sierra Leone, China has always adhered to the principles of equality-based consultations and win-win cooperation,” the spokesman said, according to CNN.

“I don’t think this particular project should be overblown as an indication of problems between the Chinese and Sierra Leone governments.”

Under former president Koroma, who was in office from September 2007 until April this year, the country took on $224 million of Chinese debt — $161 million of which was racked up in 2016 alone, according to the Johns Hopkins SAIS China-Africa Research Initiative, CNN said of one Africa’s poorest countries, which is rated by the International Monetary Fund as being at moderate risk of debt distress.

President Julius Maada Bio came to power in a hotly contested election several months ago, and has since reassessed some of the financial commitments made by his predecessor.

The Mamamah International Airport deal had been controversial for years, partly due to the “lack of transparency” about its terms, according to Lina Benabdallah, assistant professor of politics and international affairs at Wake Forest University, North Carolina.

“These re-negotiations are an important sign of African agency and rethinking the terms of deals signed between Chinese and African leaders,” Benabdallah said, according to CNN.

Sierra Leone will now upgrade its current airport in the town of Lungi, which has been criticized for its poor connectivity to the capital.

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Simon Ateba
Simon Ateba
Simon Ateba covers the White House, the U.S. government, the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and other financial and international institutions for Today News Africa in Washington D.C. Simon can be reached on simonateba@todaynewsafrica.com

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