Hong Kong (CNN)Sierra Leone has nixed plans to build a controversial, $318 million airport outside the capital of Freetown with a Chinese company and funded by Chinese loans.
Sierra Leone cancels $300 million airport deal with China
The mega project, which was due to be completed in 2022, had been commissioned by the previous president Ernest Bai Koroma in March this year.
Its cancellation comes amid cooling enthusiasm in both Pakistan and Malaysia for Chinese loans backing large-scale infrastructure projects in recent months. But Sierra Leone's decision is the first time an African government has canceled an already announced, major China-backed deal.
"After serious consideration and diligence, it is the Government's view that (it) is uneconomical to proceed with the construction of the new airport when the existing one is grossly under utilized," said a letter from the country's Minister of Transport and Aviation to the project's director, published in local media.
Speaking to the BBC on Wednesday, Sierra Leone's Aviation Minister Kabineh Kallon said the current airport would be renovated instead.
"I do have the right to take the best decision for the country," he said. It's unclear if there are any financial penalties associated with canceling the deal.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang told reporters Thursday the cancellation didn't indicate any rift between China and Sierra Leone, claiming the project had only been in an exploratory phase.
"When cooperating with African countries that include Sierra Leone, China has always adhered to the principles of equality-based consultations and win-win cooperation," the spokesman said.
"I don't think this particular project should be overblown as an indication of problems between the Chinese and Sierra Leone governments."
Sierra Leone is one of Africa's poorest nations, and is rated by the International Monetary Fund as being at moderate risk of debt distress.
Under former president Koroma, who was in office from September 2007 until April this year, the country took on $224 million of Chinese debt -- $161 million of which was racked up in 2016 alone, according to the Johns Hopkins SAIS China-Africa Research Initiative.