President Bio's government has taken the bold step of launching the ambitious Lungi Bridge project to link Lungi with the Freetown mainland. This project has received rave reviews from most government supporters and derision from opposition quarters. It is disconcerting to note however that views on the project more or less mirror the political division in this country, even amongst professionals in fields that are germane to such a project.
There have been criticisms of the bridge project-often caustic and sometimes constructive. One critic asked- "What are the public investment priorities of this Government? If one considers alternative Public investment opportunities for a $2.1 billion investment which are likely to yield far higher social and economic benefits than the Lungi Bridge, one would have reason to question this government's priorities or motive... ... ... ..this Paopanista Political Accounting gimmick does not add up and does not make sense to me until they come out clean and be transparent to the public, we should all oppose this project". Critics have generally doubted whether private investors would recoup their investments, given the lack of dynamic economic activities at Lungi and low vehicular traffic between Freetown and Lungi. One says thus about the form of the financing arrangements for the project-" It's not cost-free to the state. The project will be financed by mining concessions, free hold land, state revenues, and airport revenues. It's shocking if that's how the bridge will be financed". This claim on the forms of financing arrangements have however been disputed by government functionaries.
To the government's credit, the man put in charge of this project, the government's head of the Presidential Infrastructure Initiatives unit is eminently qualified. Dr. John Tambi is an Aviation and Transport Infrastructure Expert with more than 35 years of project management, planning, engineering, training, policy development, operations and economic analysis experience, with specialization in air, road, sea and rail transport modes. He served in NEPAD and in senior and executive positions with one of the world's leaders in the Management of airports, ports, rail and transportation facilities - the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, USA for ten years, and in major international consulting firms. He holds a PhD and MSc in Transportation Planning and Engineering.
A friend of Dr Tambi, wrote- "Sierra Leone needs quantum leaps to explore infrastructure and technology as platforms for development. ... .. I am impressed by the bridge project and particularly buoyed by someone like John Tambi being at the helm. Criticism and pressure to do a fine job is critically important but by the same token, let's give him a chance to succeed".
The President has tried to assuage the fears of critics by assuring them the project will be at no cost to government.
In reality however, when one considers the scale of the investment and the fact that any investor would have to recoup this within 20 years, one can't help but feel that this may only be possible if our economy grows in leaps and bounds based on the investment on the bridge and other associated activities like the airport, costal road, new city etc. The Chairman of the Port Loko District Council, Councilor Ibrahim Santigie Bangura is buoyant about what this investment can do for Port Loko- "The economic chain is long and has also attachments which in total could bring job opportunities, industry and technology development at an accelerated level thereby positioning our district as the focal point of connectivity in the New Direction drive", according to Chairman Bangura.
One may however also legitimately ask, why the obsession with Port Loko, which is one of the poorest Districts in the country with an estimated population of 614,000. The main economic activity apart from the airport is subsistence farming. Other activities include fishing, commerce and animal husbandry. Port Loko also has a big, largely untapped mineral potential for iron ore and bauxite. There is good potential for advancement of agriculture with vast stretches of boli and mangrove ecologies. The District however remains abjectly poor with a poverty rate of 60%.
There are a few things worth noting about such a project.
The project is likely to affect the communities' way of life, quality of life, livelihoods, etc. Project components can result in land take and resettlement. There are several uncertainties about the feasibility of some of the sub projects planned and there certainly needs to be more community engagement. Community engagement is not an event with a distinct start and end; rather it should be a continuous process right throughout the project's lifecycle. The failure to prepare for projects through quality public consultation throughout the project cycle, and failure to carry out appropriate cost benefit analysis, feasibility studies and impact assessments, can result in poor decisions that cannot be reversed later, locking in negative impacts for people and the environment over many years.
We must expect the unexpected as with many public projects. Demand forecasting for public infrastructure projects is usually poor and the ridership for transport projects rarely meets projections. Actual traffic on the Chunnel connecting England and France turned out to be only 18 per cent of predictions, one reason the consortium that built it went bankrupt.
With a considerable number of associated projects planned to "sweeten" things for any potential investor, the government must also be careful about low balling costs. Proponents of infrastructure projects normally believe in their social benefits and therefore deliberately low-ball costs and exaggerate benefits to secure the public's approval. History is replete with public projects that have gone way beyond the projected budget.
With at least $100 million profit required per year to repay costs (very simplistic estimate), there will obviously be a considerable number of legitimate questions related to various types of risks, any of which may put paid to the project. If, however this project is pulled off, the economy of the country will, as stated have to improve beyond all projections currently contemplated. According to a recent analysis of the economy-"Continued economic growth will depend on rising commodities prices and increased efforts to diversify the sources of growth. Non-mining activities will remain constrained by inadequate infrastructure, such as power and roads, even though power sector projects". Repaying at least $100m a year amounts to one sixth of our national revenues, one eighth of our exports or a fifth of our foreign exchange reserves. Currently it is projected that real GDP will increase to 5.6% in 2019 and 5.8% in 2020 and that the main drivers of economic growth will be increased private agricultural and mining investment amid business climate reforms. How far will economic growth be further bolstered by the bridge and other associated investments? Will the tourism and transportation sectors grow in leaps and bounds to help sustain such an investment?
It is obvious from the foregoing that President Bio's government needs to answer a lot of questions on this project and not take criticism as an indication that people do not want the project to go ahead. The President's huge task and the criticisms faced is reminiscent of that faced by Nehemiah in the Bible who had a mission to rebuild the walls of Jericho. He defied the opposition of Judah's enemies on all sides-Samaritans, Ammonites, Arabs and Philistines-and rebuilt the walls within 52 days.
There are many aspects of Nehemiah's actions that the President may wish to adopt.
Kudos to President Bio for being brave. Nehemiah teaches us a leader must be action oriented. He should attempt new things, take initiative, and work toward something. Nehemiah not only had a heart for the city of Jerusalem, but he also acted.
Nehemiah showed the need for the work he planned to do by reminding the people that they were vulnerable without a city wall and were in a position of disgrace. President Bio and team have got to do a better job of convincing a skeptical public that this is a priority project in the midst of all our urgent national needs. People could ask the following questions- "Apart from the airport, what else is the attraction of Port Loko? If the issue is linking Freetown to other Districts, is Port Loko the District that will yield the greatest dividends? Is the real issue to be addressed that of the airport? Could a new city not be built elsewhere? A leader must show the need (or problem) which he plans to solve. If he is going to have a vision for something that needs to change, he also must show the problem which that vision will solve. Otherwise, he will not get support or buy-in for his vision.
Nehemiah said, "let us" rebuild the walls of Jerusalem. He included himself and the people he was talking to in the work to be done. A leader realizes that work is a team effort. No leader can accomplish great things alone. Several communities will be affected by such a project. They need to be brought on board. The need for community participation is paramount.
There will obviously be critics. Some may be genuine and others not. When Nehemiah encountered opposition, he called together the people and told them not to be afraid and to keep persisting toward the goal. A godly leader doing God's work will not be stopped by earthly opposition. He may be delayed or slowed down but not stopped. Furthermore, a godly leader takes initiative to prevent the people he leads from being discouraged. Nehemiah was focused on the work of rebuilding the city of Jerusalem and as a result did not allow himself to be distracted by Sanballat and Tobiahs. Those working assiduously on the project should not unnecessarily get distracted by the "Sanballats and Tobiahs" in our society. Every great project will have those who oppose it. Some out of ignorance, others out of downright maliciousness. The government should however have a plan in response so that supporters don't give up. A wise leader will evaluate the opposition in the light of the spirit and attitude in which criticism is given. He will also consider the voice to which the opposition listens.
Nehemiah also teaches us that as things change, the plan may need review and change. As problems were reported to Nehemiah, he addressed the issue by making other plans. Problems are bound to occur and demand that the plan be revisited. President Bio and team must be prepared to change course and recalibrate if necessary in the light of new information. J. Oswald Sanders observed, "No leader is exempt from criticism, and his humility will nowhere be seen more clearly than in the manner in which he accepts and reacts to it."
One very much hopes that the Lungi debate will become less partisan. The project team, as expected of such a project will undoubtedly engage in quality public consultation and carry out appropriate cost benefit analysis, feasibility studies and impact assessments and be ready to recalibrate as new evidence comes to light. The apprehensions of dissenting voices should be listened to and properly addressed and the public educated. Whilst wishing that the project succeeds, we must not lose sight of the fact that some poor decisions cannot be reversed later and could lock in negative impacts for people, the environment and the economy over many years.
Ponder my thoughts.