Chinese toll road leads to controversy in Sierra Leone

A section of the $161 million Wellington to Masiaka road in Sierra Leone. KEMO CHAM | NATION MEDIA GROUP 

Some 100m outside Hastings, some 20km outside Freetown, local labourers, supervised by Chinese engineers, are putting finishing touches on a toll station.

The Hastings Tollgate, is one of three stations that will allow access to the first ever toll road under construction in Sierra Leone. But the Chinese funded project, which involves the widening of a 62km two-lane highway into four, has provoked heated debate.

The China Railway Seventh Group (CRSG), which is constructing the road under a Build, Operate and Transfer agreement, has come under heavy scrutiny since it announced last month it would commence levying fees earlier than expected.

The road, which runs from Wellington in the east end of Freetown to the northern business town of Masiaka, is estimated to costs $161 million.

Negotiations for it began in 2012 but it only got to public domain when the agreement was presented for parliamentary approval in 2015.

Major concern

It was initially rejected by lawmakers before being reintroduced and eventually passed, critics say in suspicious circumstances, in 2016.

The decision to begin levying charges with only 10km of the road completed, rekindled the debate over unanswered issues. The major concern is the fees.

Critics say the fees are too high and fear the levies will lead to increase in fares and consequent hike in the cost of living.

The decision to commence charges earlier, others say, means that the Chinese will use taxpayers’ money to complete the project, which they find unreasonable.

And those calling for an alternative route say citizens should have the option to use the road if they choose.

Also, by international standards, a 1km road costs $1 million, yet CRSG is being paid almost triple that rate in their agreement. Others are opposed to the 25-year concession time line.

The government says the project will create jobs during the four-year construction, facilitate trade with neighbouring countries, and lead to expansion of settlements along the route. It also points to easy access to the planned new airport, another divisive Chinese-funded project in the making.

“The project has immense benefits for the country,” says Mr Mohamed Sahid Koroma, the head of the Project Management Unit in the Ministry of Youth Affairs.

Apparently in anticipation of the hue and cry that greeted the announcement of levying charges earlier, government tasked the Youths ministry, which has been serving as the de facto public relations arm of CRSG, to sensitise the public on the toll system.

The initial plan was to commence charging at the beginning of July, but it was postponed to August. In a statement, the Ministry said the grace period was meant to allow renegotiations with stakeholders.

Their destinations

The proposed toll charges range from $1 (Le4, 500 for Sedan vehicles, $200 ( Le973,000) for big lorries.

The Drivers Union of Sierra Leone hailed the initiative as a “novelty”, but warned that the proposed fees would prove counterproductive to the whole idea behind introducing a toll system in a country struggling to deal with a dysfunctional transport infrastructure.

“Traffic jam has already reduced. The wear and tear on our vehicles has reduced. People now reach their destinations within the portion of the road already completed faster. Our only issue is the price,” union President Alpha Bah told the Africareview.

Vehicle owners will be required to pay one third of the total fee at each of the three gates. For lorries, this will amount to $500 (Le1946,000) for a return trip.

The river estuary

“This is too much,” lamented Mr Bah, who said they were in business and wanted profits, hence the possibility of increment in transport fares.

For ordinary Sierra Leoneans, the charges could only worsen an already difficult life in a country struggling to overcome hash austerity measures, which saw the price of fuel more than double recently.

Freetown and its largely urban environs were homes to about half of Sierra Leone’s 7 million population. And much of the locally produced foodstuff consumed in the urban areas came from the agrarian communities lining the only trunk road linking the capital to the rest of the country.

The only alternative route leads from the airport town of Lungi, but motorists choosing that route must cross the river estuary, which is the subject of over a decade-long debate over unreliable and unsafe ferry services, hence the contentious argument for a new airport.

Deputy Works minister Abdul Barrie, at the time of presenting the agreement to parliament, infamously said the availability of a “smooth and easy” alternative route would render the toll route redundant.

The road under expansion was done over 22 years ago. The government says with the rapid development and growth potentials, the two-lane way was no longer adequate to meet the increasing traffic demand and that loss of productive time due to congestion and the loss of lives through frequent accidents was hampering development and economic growth.

A toll station on the $161 million Wellington to Masiaka road in Sierra Leone. KEMO CHAM | NATION MEDIA GROUP

The plan for the new road entails a bridge and beautification of sidewalks with flowers and trees.

The actual cost is $150million, but compensation for private properties destroyed to make way for the expansion increased the amount by $11 million.

By the agreement, 95 per cent of the gross annual toll revenue will go to CRSG as repayment, with the government cashing in the 5 per cent. The Chinese also enjoy Corporate Tax waiver for 10 years.

Sierra Leone currently relies on road maintenance fund levy charged at the fuel pump to maintain its roads. That has proven thorny with authorities saying it did not generate enough revenue, while motorists complained that they do not get value for money.

With the toll agreement, says the government, CRSG is charged with maintenance of the road during the concession period. That includes adding an overlay of 4cm of bitumen to the road after the first 10 years and within the last 10 years, another overlay of 3cm of bitumen.

The pricing formula

To limit the possibility of damage, officials say the maximum weight allowed of any vehicle using the road is 53.55 tones. Locally licensed vehicles will attract $40 extra charges per every ton above the limit, whereas foreign licensed vehicles will pay $120 for the same.

In light of all that, the government says, the 25 years concession was commensurate to the pricing formula for the Chinese to recoup their money.

Information minister Mohamed Bangura last month blasted critics of the project. It followed condemnation of the agreement by an opposition politician.

Mr Bangura said such criticisms amounted to politicisation of the government's effort, adding that the focus should be beyond the cost involved in constructing the road, to the benefits.

"We do not have money to make the road. Every day the government was thinking how to open the road…They [CRSG] told us they will develop mechanisms to get back their money and it was agreed by the government,” he told a press conference.

The government has trained and deployed 60 youths to ‘sensitise’ and prepare the public ahead of the cut-off date.

Without paying

Mr Koroma occasionally accompanies the sensitisation party, which conducts town hall meetings. He said Sierra Leone had the cheapest toll charges in the world and argued that compared to elsewhere in Africa, Sierra Leone toll system was unique.

“In other parts of the world, a toll road is a closed road. You have giant slabs on the sides of it. You will never come in without paying.

"We have a toll road that is open with a lot of access routes,” he said.

Mr Koroma also noted that the agreement provides for the possibility of slicing the toll fees if there was an increase in the vehicle count on the road.

Statistics from the Sierra Leone Road Authority indicate that a little over 4,000 vehicles plied the Wellington-Masiaka route daily.

The Sierra Leone toll system will be the second in the four –member Mano River Union bloc after Cote d'Ivoire in 2014 inaugurated its 240km dual highway linking Yamoussoukro city to the commercial capital Abidjan.

Ivorian authorities at the time pegged the toll fees at between $5 to $20 (2,500 and 10,000 francs), far less than what is proposed by the Sierra Leoneans.

Can Kiir deliver on his promise of peace and stability in South Sudan?

Read Story:Can Kiir deliver on his promise of peace and stability in South Sudan?