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The Monopolization of Liberia: Entrenched in Power, Sidani Family Calling All the Shots

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BEHIND EVERY MAJOR road construction, every added cost to shipping through the main port of entry, the National Port Authority and now the monopolization of the cocoa sector, is the powerful Sidani family. 

THE LEBANESE FATHER AND SON DUO – Bassam and Hassan Sidani have been quietly amassing massive wealth with access and influence since the George Manneh Weah-led government took office last January.

UNTIL LAST JANUARY, the Sidanis were known as owners of Hotel Buchanan, a newly-constructed facility in the capital of Grand Bassa County. The family were also believed to be involved in a small cocoa business which was struggling to find its footing.

IN FACT, those in the know of the family’s inner workings tell FrontPageAfrica that they were also involved in selling scratch cards

VERY LITTLE was known about the family until the name began to pop up behind a number of high-profile Pro-Poor Projects, including but not limited to road constructions and furnishing of offices of both President Weah and First Lady Clar Weah.

WITH NO PRIOR EXPERIENCE in road construction, Sidani Group Holding today enjoys massive access to the powers that be and first access to major road contracts.

THE INEPTITUDE of the company has so far been visible for all to see. Just ask the residents of Gbarnga, Bong County who experienced first-hand when poor implementation of the cement pavement of Gbarnga Broad Street raised eyebrows, prompting  county authorities to put a halt to the pavement project.

COUNTY ASSISTANT SUPERINTENDENT for Development, Anthony B. Sheriff said the  decision to stop the road pavement was reached “because Sidani defaulted an earlier plan presented to it.

IRONICALLY, SIDANI GROUP took over the project after Chinese construction firm East International pulled out due to lack of funding on the part of the county to continue the work. 

SAID SHERIFF: “The new company (Sidani)reduced the width of the road from 4.7 meters per lane to 3.5 meters, from the Phebe Parking area to the Star Filling Station. Moreover, the company is using smooth sand, instead of rough sand. Given these reasons, we find it prudent to stop the pavement of the road until we can go back to the previous plan presented by the Chinese.”

THE WEAH-LED government took the contract away from East International although the company had been paid advance US$676,875 to do the work. The project was presented in 2016 at a total cost of US$1.2 million, which was provided from the county’s social development funds (SDF).

THE PREVIOUS GOVERNMENT of former President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, in 2018, promised the people of Bong County the completion of three major unfinished projects in Gbarnga City.

THE SIDANI FAMILY did not stop there. In February this year, the family business engineered what has now become the controversial Cargo Tracking Note (CTN) deal with Global Maritime Tracking Solution (GMTS), which had run into trouble in neighboring Sierra Leone.

PRESIDENT MAADA BIO of Sierra Leone would later terminate the company’s contract with his government as he announced a reform process to reduce the cost of doing business in Sierra Leone.

THE CTN DEAL, implemented by the Government of Liberia (GoL) through the National Port Authority (NPA) in partnership with GTMS, was aimed at giving CTN the right to track all containers coming to and passing through all seaports in the country at an additional cost of US$175. All this in the wake of an existing agreement with BIVAC which tracks all containers coming to and passing through all sea ports in Liberia.

AS IF THAT WASN’T enough, the Sidani family has for a larger part of the last year, been heavily engaged in the monopolization of the lucrative but struggling cocoa sector with local exporters expressing unhappiness over the new policies being introduced by government that would monopolize the sector by turning it over to the Sidanis.

TODAY, THERE are about 30,000 smallholder cocoa farmers in Liberia and many believe that the monopoly would destroy investments made in the sector over the last decade by smallholders, cooperatives, the Government of Liberia and the international donor communities, particularly the United States Aid for International Development(USAID).

THE PLAN TO MONOPOLIZE the sector was announced by the Deputy Director General for Technical Services at the Liberia Agricultural Commodity Regulatory (LACRA), Musa Konneh, who told the Liberia News Agency in April this year that when LACRA came into effect a year ago, there were 17 exporters of cocoa; but that number was reduced to nine and now the government itself might step in to secure a competent firm to do so on its behalf.

KONNEH EXPLAINED that between 15 to 20 thousand metric tons annually worth around US$50 million despite having the same climatic and topographic conditions as neighboring Cote d’Ivoire which is the world’s biggest exporter of cocoa. According to him, the Authority is confident that export aggregate of cocoa in Liberia can be pushed up to 60 thousand metric tons per annum in the next two years with sight on US$160 million market value “because a lot of people now have interest in growing the cash crop.”

TO UNDERSTAND THE PLIGHT of cocoa farmers in Liberia, one simply need to understand the massive discrepancies.  The World market price is around US$ 2100 per ton. Local farmers, struggle to break even on a state of monopoly are being forced to sell their cocoa for US$1400 for a ton with some 7000 metric tons reported to be Liberia’s estimated production per cocoa season.

BY MONOPOLIZING the cocoa sector, the government of Liberia has given the Sidani family access to rural farmers’ crops with licence to sell to a Dutch firm, Theobroma Chocolate Lounge, the off-taker they would finance the exports cocoa via Aya Group/Sidani Group Holding. Theobroma International (part of ECOM Group) has been a leading independent trader and market maker in cocoa products and cocoa beans since 1922. The company is a long-standing buyer of cocoa in Cameroon and was the first to certify Cameroonian cocoa farmers in 2012. The company applied for funds from the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Benin to expand certification and to improve on its sustainable supply of cocoa. 

WHAT WE WANT to know is why is the government not pushing to deal directly with Theobroma on behalf of local farmers? Why should the Sidani family enrich itself, and perhaps hire-ups in government, to the detriment of an entire nation?

WHAT IS UNFOLDING before the eyes of Liberians contradicts everything President Weah told the nation when he was inaugurated in January 2019. The President vowed that he would do all that is within his government’s power to provide an environment that will be conducive for the conduct of honest and transparent business. 

SAID THE PRESIDENT: “We will remove unnecessary regulatory constraints that tend to impede the establishment and operation of business in a profitable and predictable manner. As we open our doors to all foreign direct investments, we will not permit Liberian-owned businesses to be marginalized. We cannot remain spectators in our own economy. My government will prioritize the interests of Liberian-owned businesses and offer programs to help them become more competitive and offer services that international investors seek as partners.”

WHAT IS UNFOLDING before the eyes of each and every Liberian is a spectacle of enormous proportion that has Liberians in the front-row seat as the most damned spectators to their own declining economic show.

PRESIDENT WEAH is faced with a lot of challenges that will require the help of each and every Liberian to succeed. The international community is doing their part to help resuscitate the economy but it would take a lot of political will to right the wrongs and early missteps of the administration.

THE PRESIDENT can start by putting his words into action and allowing Liberians to grow and enjoy the sweats of their brows. 

IT IS NO SECRET that agriculture is perhaps the only remedy to Liberia’s current predicament. 

THE MOST RECENT Article IV Consultation of the International Monetary Fund made it clear: “To improve productivity, Liberia should improve its public financial system for better delivery of services. Making the country more competitive in agriculture and other sectors will be key to economic growth and diversification. Furthermore, the authorities need to strengthen governance in several institutions, including the CBL, and bolster the anti-corruption framework.”

ALL THIS IS POSSIBLE, IF AND only if Liberians are not resigned to remaining spectators to their own economy. The sooner President Weah and those in his inner circle realize this important fact, uttered by the President himself, the faster it would begin to see progress.

TOO MANY red flags have been ignored and too many warning signs taken for granted. It is becoming increasingly clear that the Weah-led government, while doing some things right, have taken a lot of wrong turns. It is time that the administration changes its approach for the betterment of Liberia.

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