China is once again causing controversy in Africa for doing something that, in theory, should win praise — giving away money.
This week, it emerged Beijing had secretly gifted Sierra Leone $55 million to fund a controversial “fishing harbor” on an undeveloped stretch of coastline, which supports the local fishing industry, borders protected rainforest, and is home to endangered turtles and pangolins. The deal only came to light after residents were told by officials in the Whale Bay area, where the harbor is planned, that there was a hold on any land exchanges because of a Chinese deal, says Jane Aspden Gbandewa, who runs an an eco-tourism business in the area. The rumor mill got busy. The Chinese were allegedly funding the sort of fish meal factory that has proliferated along the West African coast recently — businesses that are devastating to the local environment, gobbling up vast quantities of fish and spewing out toxic, odorous waste.
Beijing and Freetown were forced to deny the rumors but acknowledged a deal had been made — even if no details were forthcoming. On Tuesday, Sierra Leone President Julius Maada Bio said the project was part of Beijing’s “international Belt and Road Initiative” and would support the local fisheries sector. All “environmental due diligence will be done,” he added. Nevertheless, such moves don’t align well with President Xi Jinping’s calls to build an “ecological civilization” at home in China, and his determination to be a global leader on the climate crisis. In a statement to CNN, a spokesperson for China’s Foreign Ministry said “a modern fishing pier” had been a “long-cherished wish” of the people of Sierra Leone since the 1970s. The Foreign Ministry declined to clarify which Chinese bank or body was involved, when the funds had been exchanged — or if they were still in China — and the terms of the grant: such as whether a Chinese company will carry out the construction work. It simply said: “The ownership of the land and the port belongs to Sierra Leone.” Expansion of Sierra Leone’s fishing industry, vital for its food security and export industry, could be a boon for the country, if done responsibly. Yet caginess around money only breeds suspicion — even if it is a common factor in many deals brokered by China. A study of Chinese loan contracts earlier this year revealed secrecy clauses are a staple of Belt and Road deals.