• President Ernest Bai Koroma’s government informed the International Monetary Fund it had abandoned his flagship project, the Mamamah international airport, during its team visit in September, Africa Confidential has learned.

• Ten days later, however, Koroma told the local media that he had secured a pledge from Chinese President Xi Jinping that the project would go ahead.

• According to a secret briefing which Africa Confidential has seen, the IMF said that Freetown had agreed to kill off the project after it threatened to end its programme if it did not.

• The Fund did not want to continue working with a country prepared to put itself at such high risk of debt distress.

• The IMF calls the airport, for which no feasibility study has been done, a ‘vanity project’ which Sierra Leone cannot afford.

• The plan has been to finance the construction of the airport by the China Railway Group with a US$315 million loan from China’s Export Import Bank.

• The Fund says the airport would cost Sierra Leone about 11% of its gross domestic product.

• At a 15 September press conference at the end of the Fund’s visit, team leader John Wakeman-Linn refused to be drawn on the airport, saying it was up to the government to decide, but it needed to avoid increasing the external debt.

• However on 27 September, during the United Nations General Assembly, Koroma was pictured shaking hands with Xi after ‘pleading’, said pro-government media in Freetown, ‘not to allow the Mamamah Airport project to collapse.’

• Koroma had secured a pledge from the Chinese leader for the airport to go ahead, he was reported as saying.

• Chinese state media reporting the encounter made no mention of such a promise.

• The IMF noted that Koroma’s government had made other pledges which they did not expect it to honour.

• This year, the economy would contract by 21.5%, the briefing said, and the IMF was contemplating raising Sierra Leone’s access to its Extended Credit Facility to US$67 million in three tranches, the first to be used to cover the 2015 budget deficit (AC Vol 56 No 23, Koidu’s future in the balance).

• Freetown may have to decide between an IMF loan for the economy and a Chinese one for an airport.

© Africa Confidential 2015