Do we really need a new airport at Mamamah?


One problem with the APC is its tendency to deify its leader. The party, modeled on the old communist dictatorships, has always felt the need to elevate its leader to the status of a semi-god. “Our leader has brought all that is good to us. Our leader can do no wrong”. In reality, outside the APC cocoon, Presidents are mere mortals, like the rest of us, and like the rest of us they have good ideas, so-so ideas and really terrible ideas. The APC has historically never been able to put its President’s bad ideas down. They have not had strong figures within the party who could intellectually or ideologically counter their leader. When Siaka Stevens proposed that we host the OAU in 1980, a decision many at the time considered disastrous (read What are we supposed to be celebrating?), there was much grumbling and disagreement behind closed doors, but no one within his party was strong enough to challenge the notion. It was left to the Governor of the Bank of Sierra Leone to question it, whereupon he died in mysterious circumstances (read Sierra Leone hosts OAU; bank governor found dead).


The tendency to praise sing unquestioningly is worse in Ernest Koroma’s second term, when he has removed or sidelined many of the influential, older members of the party and government, like Victor Foh, Dauda Kamara, IB Kargbo etc. Many of the new replacements are young and inexperienced, unable to put forward any semblance of a narrative that might differ from their President’s. By comparison with the immediately preceding SLPP regime, it’s true that no SLPP stalwart was able to directly challenge President Ahmed Tejan Kabba (notwithstanding Charles Margai’s challenge to Solomon Berewa as the anointed successor); it’s also true, though, that SLPP stalwarts did not feel the same need to deify their leader that their APC counterparts now do. 


This tendency in our politics (perhaps in all African politics) to regard the leader as supreme and unquestionable, is reinforced by our presidential system of government. The president is virtually absolute leader, and unchallengeable. Once he has put his ideas forward there is no internal party debate. This system does not compare favorably in this regard with the British parliamentary model, where the leader is subjected to much stronger intellectual competition. The leader is forced to put his ideas forward personally to a critical body (including backbenchers within his own party) and to come up with sound justifications for them. The British prime minister is regularly bashed in parliament to his face! The bashings get even louder when he comes up with foolish ideas, as all leaders will do, from time to time. Parliament can quite easily veto or downscale a prime minister’s dreams (read Syria crisis: No to war, blow to Cameron). By contrast in Sierra Leone, because of the prestige attached to the Presidency, and because of our own cultural norms, a president’s dreams can become government policy overnight, even before parliament has had a chance to consider them. (read natinpasadvantage). Presidents generally tend to be able to get away more easily than prime ministers with foolish ideas, and if they are presidents of rich countries, like the USA, they can make multiple escapes with an expensive assortment of clangers (read George Bush’s 20 worst moments) (“We spent 25 billion dollars in Iraq, and another 15 billion in Afghanistan, but who cares? Let’s move on to Syria!”).


We first heard of a new airport at Mamamah in the presidential address to mark the state opening of this parliament on Dec 14, 2012. Since then plans have apparently continued apace, and some reports indicate that construction work has already begun (read new airport becomes reality). It is not known when first this plan was dreamt up, and by whom. We can find no reference to it, on the internet or elsewhere, before the address at the state opening of parliament. The plan, though apparently hazy in even the government’s mind, is to phase out Lungi as the main international airport in favour of the new one at Mamamah. The ultimate fate of Lungi is unclear; the transport and aviation minister attempted to reassure residents and stakeholders there recently with promises, incredulous, that the airport would become an industrial zone for import and export of minerals (read Industrial zone for Lungi Airport) and would not be abandoned.  All this, despite earlier presidential promises (two presidents, first Kabba then Koroma!) to build a bridge to Lungi, and a Koroma commitment barely two years ago to make Lungi the second city (read President Koroma promises bridge to Lungi, second city, expanded airport). A little more than two years ago, at the  tripartite conference that heralded our 50th Independence anniversary in 2011, President Koroma had an expansive vision for Lungi that included a bridge, a new city and an expanded airport. There was no mention of Mamamah. A little more than a year later, at the state opening of parliament in December, 2012, that vision had changed dramatically. Mamamah would now be the bold new city and airport of the future.


Do we need two international airports at this point in time? Is the existing one operating to capacity? If it is should the new one be based at Mamamah. On what basis was this choice made? What are the economics of this decision? How much would the airport cost to build and maintain? Who will be paying, both for the short term and the long term costs? Is the funding secure? Can we guarantee that promises made now will be honoured ten years later? We have invested millions and millions of dollars in Lungi over the past fifty years or so. Can we afford to see that investment go down the drain? Could the new incoming funds be put to better use? Have the necessary economic, environmental, engineering, safety and other studies been done? By impartial, independent consultants? Even if our Chinese ‘partners’ commit to all possible costs we should still ask (and answer) all these questions and more. Even if the money is a grant, its use should still be shown to be in our best interests. If there are more pressing areas in our best judgment where that same money could be used this should be communicated to our ‘partners’.


According to various published reports, the new airport will be funded by a loan from the Chinese Exim bank to the tune of USD 198 – 350 million, depending on which account you believe. USD 350 million would resuscitate a lot of schools at a time when Sierra Leone schools are in disarray (read POW School – Symbol of a Dysfunctional System). 350 million dollars would do a lot for our hospitals and our water system and all the other areas of Sierra Leone life that are so badly in need of repair. This decision, if implemented, is going to be with Sierra Leone and Sierra Leoneans for the next 50 or 100 years, long after all of us will have left the scene. We should not take it lightly.