Sierra Leone looks to spur economic growth with $2bn bridge project
Sierra Leone is seeking investors to construct a new bridge linking the capital Freetown to the lone airport in Lungi. Officials are proposing a public private partnership such as a toll gate and reckon a contract is worth up to USD2 billion, about half of Sierra Leone’s GDP. The government is looking to send a strong political statement with this project about spurring economic growth, boosting tourism and cleaning up public procurement.
Travelers flying to Sierra Leone usually have to enter Freetown by ferry or helicopter over Rokel River which is sandwiched between the capital and the airport town of Lungi. As Sierra Leone seeks to pull in tourists to explore the country’s rich biodiversity and pristine beaches, the proposed 8km bridge would provide an alternative to the sometimes-bumpy water taxi ride or helicopter shuttle.
This month President Maada Bio opened bidding for the project after he first pitched the idea to Chinese contractors in Beijing last fall, perhaps unsurprising given that China is the largest bilateral financier of infrastructure projects in Africa. There has since been frenzied reporting in the local media. One paper published its coverage alongside a picture depicting the president dressed in regalia and seated on the proposed bridge, symbolising the political significance of the bridge as the government looks to boost economic activity and show proof of promised public sector reform.
Bio came into power in April 2018 probing the outgoing government, and his transition team found widespread corruption for procurement contracts in sectors such as energy and transport. Bio then set up commissions of inquiry and canceled a USD400 million deal (named in the transition report) to build a new airport within Freetown. An anti-corruption crackdown is also underway targeting assets linked to former public officials.
In the meantime, a downturn in the mining sector is shifting some business attention to other sectors that could benefit from improved transport connectivity. These include housing and hospitality. In Lungi, land is less costly than it is in Freetown and less congestion in the former means more room for real estate development. Improving access to Freetown from Lungicould create an increasingly favorable environment for investment in housing and hospitality in the area.
One local businessman in building supplies told us, “If that bridge gets built there’s a lot of people who are going to move out of Freetown in search of affordable housing and to get away from the congestion in the capital.”
“With better access to Freetown, there’s going to be increased demand for housing and hospitality services around Lungi. Things like shopping centers and hotels will have to be built to meet the rise in demand. I see jobs and development, and it’s not just for those in construction and their supply chain.”
President Bio has promised to personally oversee the bidding process for the proposed Lungi bridge, effectively putting himself at the centre of the process. On one hand this increases the likelihood that the project would go ahead, given it will be so closely tied to the president’s reputation and standing. On the other hand the risk is that parties with access to the president could still benefit from procurements and other public deals in a way that could be discriminatory against outsiders. We note, also, that institutions remain weak, that no new legislation has been made under the new administration to reform public procurement and that decision-making is still highly centralised under the control of the presidency.
Public opinion about the Lungi bridge deal is mixed and parliament has not yet voted on the deal partly due to a crisis that occurred in June after a court removed 10 opposition MPs for violating electoral rules. However, Bio has been inclined to act unilaterally in a way that can attract stakeholder disapproval. In February for instance, he unilaterally decreed a national emergency on rape with a number of orders, including one that rape be punishable by life imprisonment ‘with immediate effect’. Civil society questioned the enforceability and demanded proper legislation with input from parliament and the judiciary. Parliament overruled those presidential decrees.
In that sense, the limited stakeholder backing for the Lungi bridge deal indicates a risk of contract abrogation should there be a change in government when polls are next due in 2023. There is precedent for that in the Mamamah airport project canceled after Bio took charge as president, defeating the incumbent party in the 2018 poll. However, in the medium term, Bio commands sufficient authority and popular backing to advance this project and other infrastructure projects.
China invested USD60bn on infrastructure in Africa in 2018