China’s influence in Sierra Leone looms on eve of long-awaited election

The impoverished country will vote on its first new government in 10 years on Tuesday in an election that a prolonged economic crisis and a slow recovery from the Ebola epidemic has left unusually open

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 07 March, 2018, 5:01pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 07 March, 2018, 9:02pm

A strange slogan went up from the hundreds of Sierra Leoneans struggling to catch a glimpse of Samura Kamara, the presidential candidate for the ruling All People’s Congress. “We are Chinese!” they chanted during the campaign stop last week. “We are Chinese!”

Sierra Leone will vote on its first new government in 10 years on Tuesday in an election that a prolonged economic crisis and a slow recovery from the Ebola epidemic has left unusually open. A new party led by a former UN executive, the National Grand Coalition, stands a chance of upsetting the traditional two-party system.

But many people perceive one of the poll’s most powerful players to be a trading partner 8,000 miles away that has invested heavily in the struggling west African country and has been a close ally of the outgoing president, Ernest Bai Koroma.

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Over the course of Koroma’s presidency, Sierra Leone has broadened trade relations with China to levels not seen since the 1980s. Chinese companies have secured the largest iron ore concession in the country and built roads through underdeveloped areas, including a US$159 million tollway. China has become one of the largest importers of Sierra Leone’s fish and timber.

Sierra Leone, one of the world’s poorest countries, faces decades of debt bondage for a new US$300 million international airport on which construction has just begun, despite warnings from the IMF, the World Bank and many others that it would be a white elephant and a vanity project.

Solidarity with China and its people has taken root in Koroma’s party, the APC. Photos taken in January during a campaign rally in the country’s interior show ethnically Chinese men openly campaigning with local APC candidates, wearing APC clothing. Much of the APC merchandise – cups, fans, T-shirts and banners – was made by Chinese companies. A new seven-storey APC headquarters was constructed recently in downtown Freetown by a Chinese construction firm.

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The APC’s presidential aspirant, Kamara, a former finance minister and foreign minister, has been a consistent advocate for Chinese investment in Sierra Leone. Last year, he told an audience at the Chinese embassy in Freetown that China’s success had ushered in a “new era of development” for the developing world, and that Beijing it was an “all-weather friend of Sierra Leone”.

Officials at the country’s embassy in Freetown said China was “apolitical” when it comes to Sierra Leone, and Chinese companies did not equal the Chinese state.

But for many Sierra Leoneans they are synonymous. For Michael Kamara, an APC supporter, chanting “We are Chinese” was an expression of gratitude and solidarity. “They’re trying to show their affection for the Chinese in the only way they know how: by pledging allegiance,” he said. “We’ve done it for the west for 60 years. Now we’re giving the Chinese a try.”

Koroma was praised for attracting international investors and development funding over his first term, but he has been criticised for the response to the Ebola outbreak. At least US$13.8 million worth of donor funds went missing, leading to corruption allegations by opposition groups, and the Red Cross has claimed US$4.1 million meant to fight the deadly disease was lost to fraud and embezzlement. Meanwhile, thousands of people were left with no source of income after mudslides killed 500 in the capital last year.

Sixteen candidates have put their names forward in the election, but the person seen as having the best chance of breaking with two-party tradition is the NGC’s Kandeh Yumkella, who broke away from the main opposition Sierra Leone People’s party when it refused to sack Julius Bio after he lost the 2012 election.