Sierra Leone has canceled plans to build a US$318 million airport in the capital in a collaborative effort with two Chinese entities. The China Railway Seventh Group, with funding from China Exim Bank, was contracted to helm the project in Sierra Leone.
"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 underutilized," a letter from Sierra Leone's Minister of Transport and Aviation Kabineh Kallon to the project's director, published in local media, said.
The minister told BBC that the current airport in the town of Lungi would be renovated instead. "I do have the right to take the best decision for the country." The government is also reportedly considering building a bridge to link the airport to Freetown, since Lungi is separated from Freetown by an estuary, which requires a ferry ride to access the city.
China has significantly expanded investments across the continent of Africa in various capacities as part of the Asian nation’s Belt Road global project. African countries owe China about US$130 billion in total, according to the China-Africa Research Initiative. The funds have been used primarily to fund transport, power and mining projects.
In September, at the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) summit between Beijing and African heads of state, Chinese President Xi Jinping pledged a further US$60 billion in loans and aid for the continent.
Sierra Leone is the first African government to terminate an already-announced major Chinese-backed deal. China's ambassador to Sierra Leone Wu Peng, told the BBC that relations between the two countries would not be affected by the cancelation.
"I don't think the airport project should affect our future bilateral relations.” The airport was to be located outside Freetown and due to be completed in 2022.
Former President Ernest Bai Koroma had greenlighted the project between the two countries in March.
During the Koroma presidency, Sierra Leone incurred US$224 million in Chinese debt — US$161 million in 2016 alone — according to the Johns Hopkins SAIS China-Africa Research Initiative.
Newly-elected President Julius Maada Bio has reassessed several financial commitments brokered by Koroma. Meanwhile, other leaders have lauded Beijing’s involvement in projects across Africa.
"China has become a major investor in our continent. As we look to expand Chinese investment in Africa, we need to encourage more local partnerships between Chinese and African entrepreneurs," South African President Cyril Ramaphosa said at the opening of FOCAC.
The dissolution of the Sierra Leonean airport project follows Malaysia’s cancelation of US$22 billion of China-backed projects in August. Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad said, "we don't need" them adding that the Chinese investment would create further debt and give Beijing unprecedented influence in Malaysia.