In the wake of China’s expansive Belt and Road Initiative in Africa, infrastructure projects have become a prominent feature on the continent. Launched by Chinese President Xi Jinping in 2013, this initiative has given rise to numerous roads, railways, bridges, hospitals, schools, and airports throughout Africa.
However, Sierra Leone’s political landscape has been marked by significant shifts, particularly concerning Chinese loans for infrastructure projects. In April 2018, the Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP) assumed power and promptly cancelled the previously negotiated US$350 million loan with the Chinese Government for the construction of the Mamamah Airport. The SLPP cited concerns about the loan’s value for money.
Now, rumours swirl that the SLPP Government is clandestinely engaged in negotiations for a hefty US$1.5 billion loan from China for the construction of the Lungi Bridge. What complicates matters further is that the Chinese Government appears to be leveraging this bridge loan negotiation to pressure Sierra Leone into conceding control of the Pepel Rail and Port to the Chinese Company, Kingho.
It’s worth noting that the Sierra Leone Government had already entered into an agreement with ARISE IIP for the management of the Pepel Rail and Port, a deal which received cabinet approval in January 2023 after the lawful termination of the Kingho agreement in the same month.
Sierra Leone is grappling with a mounting debt burden owed to China, amounting to US$67 million for various projects, including fibre-optic and telecoms infrastructure, such as the National Fibre Backbone Phase 2 Project. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) has classified Sierra Leone as a high-risk country in debt distress, making it evident that the country’s borrowing capacity is severely constrained.
To seek a solution, Sierra Leone has turned to China due to the United States’ decision to withhold disbursements under the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC). President Julius Maada Bio is reportedly planning a state visit to China before the end of the year. However, this visit seems contingent upon the conclusion and signing of the Kingho Pepel Rail and Port agreement, as perceived by Western diplomats in Freetown.
The situation underscores the Chinese Government’s increasingly assertive strategy of debt diplomacy, using soft loans to exert influence on impoverished African nations, including Sierra Leone. This approach has raised concerns among international observers, such as a US-based Professor of International Relations, who warned African Governments to exercise caution when considering Chinese loans for infrastructure development.
As Sierra Leone navigates its external debt crisis, the delicate balance between financial relief and protecting the interests of its citizens remains a pressing concern. The nation’s ability to provide essential services, including healthcare, electricity, and free quality education, is at stake. In the midst of these challenging circumstances, the people of Sierra Leone hope for a resolution that aligns with their best interests.
In conclusion, the shadow of Chinese debt diplomacy looms large over Sierra Leone, raising important questions about the country’s financial future and the role of international actors in shaping it.