China promises investment in impoverished Sierra Leone

By Thomson Reuters Feb 28, 2024 | 7:50 PM

BEIJING (Reuters) -Chinese President Xi Jinping promised to encourage Chinese firms to invest in minerals-rich but economically ailing Sierra Leone as part of Beijing’s long-term drive to deepen economic and political ties with Africa.

China has always regarded cooperation with African countries as a cornerstone of its foreign policy, Xi told visiting Sierra Leone President Julius Maada Bio in Beijing on Wednesday.

Its relations with Sierra Leone are “a model of unity and cooperation” for other African states,” Xi said.

Bio, who is accompanied on this visit by his finance and mining ministers, is hoping to attract more Chinese firms to the West African state and secure investment pledges to upgrade its poor infrastructure.

“We look forward to leveraging strategic opportunities for the benefit of our two countries,” Bio wrote on X, formerly known as Twitter, adding that he thanked Xi “for his invaluable partnership and support towards Sierra Leone’s socio-economic development.”

During the meeting, China announced 50 million yuan ($6.95 million) in economic and technical assistance, a 20 million yuan debt cancellation and 1,500 tonnes of food assistance for Sierra Leone, according to a statement from Sierra Leone’s State House.

China’s engagement with African states is expected to take on a bigger focus in 2024 after the dismantling of stringent COVID-19 curbs and the re-opening its borders to the world.

Since the start of 2023, it has elevated diplomatic ties with Ethiopia, Zambia, Benin, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Gabon in a continent whose natural resources have long been a draw.

China is also keen to grow its geopolitical influence just as the United States seeks to deepen its ties with the continent.

Xi told Bio China will support Africa’s drive to industrialise and to modernise its agricultural sector.

Chinese firms have invested $6.4 billion in Sierra Leone since 2010, data from the American Enterprise Institute think tank shows, predominantly in metals.

In December, Sierra Leone signed a pact with China Road and Bridge Corporation to build an 8-km (5-mile) bridge crossing the river separating the capital Freetown from the country’s main airport at an estimated cost of $1.5 billion.

Freetown has struggled to convince foreign lenders that it could service any debt it might take on despite needing fresh funding to rebuild following an 11-year civil war that ended in 2002.

In November, China granted Sierra Leone $13 million to “support the economic and social development of Sierra Leone.”

Freetown owes Beijing around $78 million, or 2.5% of its public debt, International Monetary Fund data shows, ahead of South Korea, from which it has borrowed around $50 million, and India, which it owes $28 million.

($1 = 7.1976 Chinese yuan)

(Reporting by Ryan Woo and Joe Cash; Editing by Angus MacSwan and Michael Perry)