March 11, 2021
BY: Winstanley. R. Bankole. Johnson
The Institute of Governance Reforms, under the astute putative leadership of Mr. Andrew Lavallie recently red-flagged cogent issues on transparency and accountability on the Public Private Partnership (PPP) arrangements between the governments of Sierra Leone and China through a Finance, Design, Build Operate and Transfer (FDBOT) intermediation agreement with the China Railway Seventh Group (CRSG), using the Toll Gates along the 62Km Freetown/Masiaka road stretch as a case reference and which agreement they (IGR) believe might have potentially adverse consequences for Sierra Leone. The concerns of the IGR are that the agreement was opaque, in that citizens were not sufficiently informed on:
The IGR is further concerned that the public is always kept in the dark when politicians are having conversations with the Chinese (particularly) on vital assets and their implications on our democracy especially as China itself is not a democracy. Citing a few instances where African governments have almost surrendered their sovereignty to Chinese conglomerates as a result of debt service constraints, the IGR even closed with a recommendation that the ECOWAS must develop standard guidelines for engagement with China to ensure the interest of sovereign African nations are protected. That should be achievable within far shorter timelines than it has taken ECOWAS to celebrate the ECU Currency.
IGR concerns about the Toll Gates project costs and that Sierra Leoneans could possibly have also been extensively shortchanged sounds “legit”, though fraught with the same unsubstantiated suspicions as with all pro-SLPP CSOs concerns about everything associated with costs under the Ernest Bai Koroma/APC Presidency. And that inference is reinforced by their assertion to wit: “……the price tag of USD3million per kilometer would seems too high even by European Union standards”. Those are not new suspicions against the APC and by now we’re trained to live with them. Unperturbed. The important thing here is that once the IGR and others are able to ascertain that the entire FDBOT transaction on the Toll Gates were above board, they should feel obligated to announce same to the public and thereafter hold their peace. I suspect however they are likely to change that perception once they become privy to the actual costs for the 50Meters Savage Street Bridge which though recently opened to traffic flows is still incomplete.
I picked all above IGR concerns from Awoko Press edition of 3rd March, and as if to add salt to the injury, an addendum by Awoko in that same report expressed further supportive reservations that their request for information channeled through the Right to Access Information since 11th February on the same matter had remained unanswered as at the publication date.
Now even if I might differ with the IGR on a number of fronts, I still think they have to be congratulated for picking up on this issue even though belatedly. And I maintain belatedly because these Toll Gates construction by the past regime was one that irked the then opposition SLPP so much that it elicited one more “forename” for former President Koroma: “Toll Gate”, which was an inference for malfeasance. The fact it did not meet the concocted Government Transition Team (GTT) Reports prosecutorial threshold or why in all their investigative analysis on economic governance post 2018 to date nothing adversarial on the Toll Gates was directly imputed by the IGR against Ernest Bai Koroma is an aside. What is important now is that by bringing it to the fore, the government, our Legislature and citizens will not only be fully apprised of the nature, integrity and quality of the Terms and Conditions governing the supposedly opaque FDBOT arrangements for the construction of those Toll Gates, but they can by a proper understanding of those issues become sufficiently guided to prioritize transparency and accountability in future multi-lateral agreements tying governments to long all term/ deferred debt burdens.
Recently, transparency and accountability issues also became important particularly in the context of arrangements for the proposed New Airport Terminal on supposedly the same FDBOT template, but which to many of us is equally opaque. Opaque because it is unclear to date as to what the specific deliverables should be, even though that agreement has been ratified by Parliament. For example whilst on the one hand HE President Bio was announcing about construction of a New Airport Terminal at a cost of around USD270Million, the First Lady Fatima Bio in a Social Media clip was seen in a vehicle celebrating completion of arrangements for “the building a brand New Airport for Sierra Leone”. Such narrative incongruities emerging from the same house are not new within an African Presidency. President Buhari suffered from it in the early days of his ascendancy into office but he was quick to have nipped it in the bud by redefining fresh guideline for his spouse. In our case, and pertaining to issues of transparency and accountability such public contradictions on the specific expected deliverables on the proposed Lungi Airport project are likely to provide fertile grounds for suspicions after the SLPP would definitely have left office, that Sierra Leoneans could also have been shortchanged, in the same way anti-APC rights groups are feverishly foraging for evidences of grafts against the last APC administration. So we need to begin to do things correctly at first attempts and to make sure we get them right.
That airport conundrum further became more complicated when less than a month away from the Presidential turning of the sod for the purpose, the General Manager of the Sierra Leone Airports Authority (SLAA) was in the media lamenting the deplorable state of the Lungi Airport runway, and for which he was appealing for a USD24Million funding to completely rehabilitate it. Should that funding materialize, it will mean that the total cost for the proposed New Terminal (USD270Million) PLUS cost for the proposed full of the Runway (USD24Million) will ultimately be taking this country into a total net debt burden of USD294Million (for just a New Terminal Building and a Rehabilitated Runway). That will be just 26% short of the USD400Milliion debt burden for what the nation would have benefited from for a completely New Mammamah Airport as was earmarked by the erstwhile APC government, and to which a surrounding New City and other economic benefits that would have been complimentary. I will leave it to readers to do their own cost-benefit analysis of those projects.
The inquisitiveness of the IGR for transparency into the Toll Gates must be taken very seriously because once we become accustomed to such, citizens and civil societies will be taking keener interests into making deeper analysis on costs and tenor of proposed FDBOTs before any government can commit itself.
I was disappointed that the stone wall reaction of the CSRG to the Awoko Press inquiries under the Right To Access information Act could have so easily frustrated them from continuing with their own side of the investigations with either the relevant Parliamentary Committee (through which the RAI Law was piloted and enacted) or directly through the RAI Commission. I believe this is a matter all citizens should interest themselves in because it involves Tax-Payers’ hard-earned invested moneys. As it is a Manifesto pledge of President Bio that “Pa-O-Pa Salone for betteh” I think we should happily support him in that regard, whether his efforts to block financial leakages are being undermined by his very close associates who, as the Africanist Press is alleging have now replaced those leakages with wider financial drainages is beside the point.