A couple of weeks ago while we were driving to Damascus for the Beit al-Qasid, a friend told me about the current Sukleen scandal that I have been too busy to have read about. Sukleen, for those who have never been to Lebanon, is the ubiquitous cleaning company that keeps the streets of Beirut so relatively clean. But first things first: it should be said that Sukleen does a terrific job. Its cleaners are constantly out cleaning, and as a result, Beirut is orders of magnitude cleaner than, say, Cairo. Not as clean as Holland or Singapore, but still, considering how much littering is being done here, they actually do a bang-up job.
So what’s the problem? The issue is the contract, which has recently expired:
While few would contest the quality of the service, the renewal of Sukleen’s contract with the Lebanese government has been at the core of a cabinet row over how much the Lebanese state should pay for its services. If March 14 ministers had their way, they would renew the contract without questioning it, but March 8 opposition ministers asked to see it before signing it.
Currently, the terms of the deal between Sukeleen and the government are secret, as are the fees the company charges, despite the fact that they are paid from public money. Both opposition ministers and NGO workers who advocate for transparency find the situation unacceptable.
…Rumor has it that Sukleen’s services are some of the most expensive in the world, but few people in Lebanon know for sure how much it costs to clean Beirut’s streets. Minister of State Jean Ogassapian, who is responsible for dealing with the contract, refused to speak to the media about it.
Sukleen was founded in 1994 just before the cabinet signed a contract with Averda group, Sukleen’s parent company, which includes both Sukleen and Sukomi, a waste treatment company.
Sukleen’s contract was renewed in 2006. However, it has since expired, and there is no consensus in the cabinet to renew it.
Opposition ministers have been trying to get their hands on details of the contract between Sukleen and the state, but so far to no avail:
March 8 ministers also demanded the government organize a public bidding process for awarding the contract, but the proposal was rejected by March 14 ministers. Prime Minister Saad Hariri argued that it is too late to look for another company because the contract with Sukleen has already expired. Hariri told ministers the company agreed to reduce the amount it is paid by 4 percent, but some members still insisted on examining the contract before approving it.
Minister of the Displaced Akram Chehayeb said that the debate over Sukleen’s contract was political and raised by the March 8 ministers for political reasons.
So let’s just get this straight here: the government has a no-bid secret contract for a huge (and likely hugely expensive) service, and when members of the opposition (not even the lowly public!) attempt to find out the basic details about the contract before agreeing to it, they are accused of being “political” by Chehayeb, who, surprise, surprise, was the environment minister when the original contract was signed.
While not surprising, the lack of transparency here is flagrant. The question, then, is cui bono? In an unpublished paper documenting Lebanon’s extensive post-war corruption carried out by the Council for Development and Reconstruction, Reinoud Leenders, who has a forthcoming book on corruption in post-war Lebanon, quotes Maysara Sukkar, the owner of of Sukleen’s parent company, Averda Group (formerly known as Sukkar Engineering Group), as saying:
Garbage is politics. [...] You have to be close with the politicians when you enter that area and they want a service from you. Sukkar had to be close to Hariri because it is a waste management business where you have to be close to the government. [..]We are running a public service.
Leenden also highlights the suspicious conditions surrounding the original contract with Sukleen:
At the date of Sukleen’s foundation, 18 May 1994 (only a few months before it received its first contract), it had a start-up capital of US$ 20,000; extremely little for a company that was to run a multi-million dollar business requiring sizeable capital investments. One is left to wonder why the CDR had apparently no qualms in contracting a company that could not prove from its start-up capital nor track-record that it could carry out capital-intensive services in waste management. Figure taken from: Ort, Masri & Associées, Société d’Information Commerciale et Financière (Groupe Reuters), Company Profile Sukleen SAL.
I’ve also heard rumors that the Hariri family is at least a partner in the Averda Group, but I haven’t been able to confirm that, and the company’s “who we are” page isn’t particularly forthcoming. So in a way, the March 14 politicians are right to say this is all politics, because apparently, garbage is politics in Lebanon. Or is it the other way around?