There are economic risks too. Sierra Leone’s economy is so firmly harnessed to the chariot of the foreign-operated iron ore projects that when the biggest of these had start-up problems this cut projected GDP growth by more than half.
The IMF last year forecast 2012 GDP growth of 51 per cent – one of the highest in the world – based on the commencement of iron ore exports from Sierra Leone by two mining companies, African Minerals and London Mining.
Citing start-up problems at the largest mining operation, African Minerals’ Tonkolili and a weakening of world iron prices, the Fund slashed this projection to a more modest but still sizzling 21-per-cent GDP growth for this year.
African Minerals has cut its ore shipment forecast from Sierra Leone several times this year, most recently this month.
“For iron ore to be the ‘hope of the nation’ is a concern,” said Aminata Kelley-Lamin, of the Network Movement for Justice and Development (NMJD), an NGO which seeks to promote good governance and transparency in Sierra Leone.
Ms. Games says many African economies are too dependent on aid or volatile commodities and so vulnerable to outside shocks. “In Malawi, if the aid pulls out, it comes to a standstill. In Angola, if oil prices drop, it comes to a standstill.”
Ms. Kelley-Lamin’s NGO, local journalists and even some foreign diplomats question the speed with which the iron ore mining leases were passed by Sierra Leone’s parliament in 2010, saying this process should be probed for possible irregularities.
“For the two agreements, it was like they passed under a certificate of emergency, there was very little scrutiny,” said Ms. Kelley-Lamin. “Something was amiss,” she added.
Government officials deny any secrecy, irregularity or corruption. “As far as I know, absolutely no bribes were paid to anybody,” a spokesman for President Koroma, Unisa Sesay, said.
London Mining said it was operating with “integrity and transparency” and had followed all necessary and legal process. “Any suggestion to the contrary is entirely without merit,” it said in a statement responding to Reuters questions.
African Minerals did not respond to specific questions about the lease approval process.
Some Sierra Leoneans are skeptical about just how widely the benefits from the mining deals will spread to the population.
“The deals are not for us … They should review all these deals. If you want to mine our resources, build roads, schools, hospitals,” said Isatu, a businesswoman in her 30s who runs a Freetown clothing boutique and would only give her first name.
“Africa is rising for the political elite and for the investors … maybe we are in another phase of the scramble for Africa’s wealth,” said NMJD’s Ms. Kelley-Lamin.
Whatever the future holds, Africa@Work’s CEO Games said investors were looking for a deeper read of Africa’s reality than just upwardly charging statistical charts and metrics.
“People want the nuances now. You can’t operate on statistics, you want the details,” she said.
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