The Background
Social media and mainstream media have since last week been awash with a seeming conflict between two private entities that are friends of Sierra Leone, over the use of the rail track situated in the Port Loko/Tonkolili axis of the country. Arise IIP, a private investment entity that has been given a contract to develop the Sierra Leone Economic Investment Zone, and other areas, is poised to bring in passenger trains into the country for the first time since the closure of such transport services in the mid-1970s.
However, this component of their planned investment has some snags as the rail track which they intend to use for the passenger trains is subject to clearance by the previous owners of the track, Kingho. Kingho, another private company of Chinese origin, had developed the rail track running from Tonkolili to Pepel in the Port Loko district, and had been using it for transporting their iron ore to the seaport of Pepel for eventual exporting to China.
The Contentions
The contentious rail track was actually built by the Chinese company Kingho that had a contract with the Government of Sierra Leone for the construction of a rail track in specified areas in the north of the country. The terms of the contract was to Build, Operate and Transfer (BOT), which means that the constructed rail track was to be handed over to the government after a certain period of time. Section 6 Part 4 of the contract between Kingho Mining Company and the Government of Sierra Leone gives the former the right to transport their product from Tonkolili to Pepel using the railway. Indeed, Kingho built and operated the rail track but had not handed over to it, when their contract with the Government of Sierra Leone was terminated.
As a country seeking genuine investors as engines of growth and development, government has been seeking investors. Arise IIP entered the fray and rolled out an elaborate plan of investment in the country that could run into billions of Leones. It sought cabinet approval to develop the Sierra Leone Economic Investment Zone and got it. However, with regards the use of the rail track and management of the port of Pepel, there were attendant forerunner contracts that it first needed to meet, before qualifying for its full use. These conditions precedent had to be fulfilled before Arise IIP could be given the right to use the rail track.
It is also important to understand that the contract between the Government of Sierra Leone and Arise IIP was not ratified by Parliament, the body that as per law approves and ratifies all contracts and negotiations that Government of Sierra Leone enters into. At the time of the contract negotiations and cabinet approval of Arise IIP, the country was at the throes of the elections and the life span of the previous Parliament was nearing its end. This means that technically, Arise IIP had just a loose contract with the Government of Sierra Leone.
Government’s Interest
The Government of President Julius Maada Bio has no special interest in any of the two entities but the interest of Sierra Leone. President Bio has said from the onset of his presidency in 2018, that he would seek the best interest of the country and that he would deal with genuine investors with credibility and pedigree. Both Arise IIP and Kingho Mining are friends of Sierra Leone and the President recognises that. The bottleneck around the use of the rail track would be handled in a way that the country’s interest is neither jeopardised nor mortgaged. Kingho Mining has a contract with the Government of Sierra Leone dating back to June 14, 2022 that covers the construction of a rail track for transporting their product from Tonkolili to Pepel. Though this contract was temporarily upended, yet the initial owners and the Government of President Bio are still in discussions. Arise IIP are still partners with the Government of Sierra Leone and have been given the SIZ, which can serve as the spring board for them to launch themselves for bigger projects in future. The use of the rail track which was initially built by Kingho Mining has gone way beyond the company itself. The technicalities and national interests do not make way for sidestepping Kingho Mining in the use of the track.