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Sierra Leone has cancelled a $400m Chinense-funded project to build a new airport outside the capital Freetown. Former President Ernest Bai Koroma signed the loan agreement with China before he lost elections in March.
At the time, the World Bank and the IMF warned that the project would impose a heavy debt burden. The decision comes amid concern that many African countries risk defaulting on their debts to China. Aviation Minister Kabineh Kallon said the project, which was due to have been completed in 2022, wasn’t necessary and the country’s current international airport would be renovated instead.
He said current President Julius Maada Bio “didn’t see any need for the proposed airport” and was considering building a bridge from the capital to Lungi airport – the only international airport in the country.
Mr Kallon said he did not know whether the cancelled contract would lead to financial implications, and Sierra Leone remained on good terms with China.
“I do have the right to take the best decision for the country,” he said. China’s ambassador to Sierra Leone, Wu Peng,said that relations would not sour between the two countries. “I don’t think the airport project should affect our future bilateral relations,” he said.
China is now the single largest bilateral financier of infrastructure in Africa surpassing the African Development Bank ADB, the European Commission, the European Investment Bank, the International Finance Corporation, the World Bank and the Group of Eight G8 countries combined.
Critics say China is luring countries into debt traps by lending them money for massive infrastructure projects. In August, 16 American Senators voiced their concern about “predatory Chinese infrastructure lending’’ in a letter to US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
Zambia’s government has had to publicly deny reports that China could seize some of its parastatal companies if it defaulted on loan repayments. But China has denied claims that it is leading countries into a debt trap.
“If we take a closer look at these African countries that are heavily in debt, China is not their main creditor,” China’s special envoy for Africa, Xu Jinghu, told a news conference in September. “It’s senseless and baseless to shift the blame onto China for debt problems,” he said.
Some Africans are also wary of the high levels of debt being built up and say the costs of some projects have been inflated by corruption, while others welcome China’s involvement, saying that the roads, ports, railways and other projects are badly needed.
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