17 June 2014

Liberia: Low Quality, High Volume - Dark Side of Chinese Contractors

Monrovia — Even Samuel Doe knew better. When Milton & Richards Consultant firm advised President Samuel Kanyon Doe, not to change the chandelier lights in the Executive Mansion during his reign as head of state, the young military leader reportedly agreed with engineers that although there was a problem with the lighting, it would be wrong to change the lighting system.

The consultant reportedly advised the late President that those lights were expensive, high quality lights from London and that the only thing needed changing, were the bulbs.

Fast-forward to now, Chinese contractors doing work on the seat of the Liberian presidency, whose fourth floor was gutted by fire during a 2005 Independence Day festivities, have changed all of the original ornaments in the facility with Made in China products.

Historians say, Doe with his limited exposure, agreed with Milton & Richards Firm.

Chinese Monopoly Baffling

Today, many Liberians are baffled at the pace and massive looting of the seat of the presidency since the construction project was given to the Chinese.

Millions of dollars have reportedly been spent to renovate the building but very little physical transformation can be seen.

"Why would some Liberians with better exposure and education allow the Chinese to put cheap quality material in a building that was considered one of the best in Africa? FrontPageAfrica has also learned that that some of the durable antiques materials used by the Israelites were shipped to China.

Some engineers who spoke to FrontPageAfrica on condition of anonymity explain that the Chinese are putting low quality materials in the executive mansion. "They tried to change the durable marble tiles that the Israelites used in the Executive Mansion with ceramic tiles of lower quality and the Central Air Conditioning system with a stand up

Air Conditioner. The original Otis elevator is to be change with cheaper low quality elevators from China. The expenses and high quality chandelier lights from London were replaced by very low quality lights from China," said a contractor.

FPA also learned that the original company that has the blueprint and build the executive mansion came and made an offer to renovate the building, but some government officials refused and gave the renovation work to the Chinese who many believe do not have the skill and experience to do the work.

According to sources closed to the renovation work, there have been problems between the Chinese and the supervising consultant about the cheap materials used and low quality work.

When recommendations were made to the Chinese not to carry on certain work, the Chinese disobeyed the instruction or recommendations and carried out the work at night when the employees of the consultant firm are home. "There were times the consultant asked the Chinese to stop work they were advised not to do, but calls reportedly came from some officials to leave them because of intervention from the Chinese Embassy," our source said. "Liberians should not allow the Chinese embassy to run our construction industry. We understand the Embassy should protect Chinese interest but not to the detriment of Liberia or Liberians."

President Disappointed

During a visit to the facility recently, President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf expressed disappointment at the work done by the Chinese.

During Independence Day festivities in July 2006, a fire gutted the executive mansion, almost claiming the lives of four west African presidents (including Liberia's).

At the time, conspiracy theories were numerous as fingers pointed in various directions in search of answers. Some detained rebels loyal to the former leader, Charles Taylor, were suspected but a South African forensic team found that dodgy wiring rather than foul play was responsible. Investigators reportedly found that air conditioners and chandeliers switched on especially for the visiting presidents of Ivory Coast, Sierra Leone and Ghana had overloaded a dilapidated system.

The incident led to the resignation of Morris Dukuly, then Minister of State for Presidential Affairs, who took responsibility for the incident which forced the visiting heads of state to leave abruptly.

In recent days, scrutiny over the quality of work undertaken by Chinese contractors have heightened with many, including government officials expressing concerns at the poor quality of work undertaken by the Chinese.

For the foreseeable future, some experts fear that the problem may not go away anytime soon, unless other local and foreign companies are given the chance to give the Chinese some competition.

For local contractors, the Chinese influence is posing a major problem for business.

While countries like Ghana, Tanzania and others have taken measures to protect the locals against powerful foreign companies, Liberia is still lagging behind.

Ghana, for example, has passed into law the Companies Act protecting local businesses against foreign companies. In Ghana, foreign companies are subjected to huge initial capital and there is a provision requiring foreign companies to have Ghanaians shareholders in their ranks as a means of empowering Ghanaians.

Empowering Locals Key

President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf has acknowledged the need to empower Liberian business and all the awarding of contracts to Chinese is coming in the wake of the President's May 28, 2014, speech on the economy in which she suggested the importance of breaking down the walls of monopolies so that more local companies can continue to benefit from quality services at affordable prices.

Chinese companies have taken over the construction business in Liberia leaving little room for Liberian contractors.

FrontPageAfrica recently reported that China Union, the Chinese company that won the bid to take over the former Bong Mining Company of Liberia, recently solicited bids from companies for the construction of Liberian staff dormitories in Bong Mines.

China Union in communications to several construction companies including Liberian-owned requested companies to tender bids for the construction of dormitories. In the end out of a total of eight companies that submitted bids, Chinese companies accounted for half of the total number.

In its evaluation, China Union rated the Chinese companies high over the local companies. Qingjian International (Lib) Development Co. was rated higher followed by Semoh Group of Companies, B-Con Engineering Company, Kpandu International Construction Company, Trokon Construction Incorporated, Modern Architectural Construction Engineering and Global Construction Mechanical Company.

FrontPageAfrica has now learned that Qinjian International is a subsidiary of another Chinese company, CHICO.

Lingering Challenges

With so much riding on the Sirleaf administration development agenda, many are suggesting that the government open up its doors to other contractors instead of relying solely on the Chinese. In Sierra Leone, for example, road projects are moving at a fast pace primarily because Chinese companies are not allowed to bid on EU projects, especially in the wake of European Union auditors insistence that the EU improve management of its infrastructure development projects after finding that roads in several sub-Saharan countries weren't built to last.

"The aid-recipient countries visited by the Court do not do enough to ensure the sustainability of road infrastructure," the auditors said in a statement. "In all partner countries visited by the Court, roads are affected to varying degrees by premature deterioration. Most of these countries have adopted institutional reforms, notably entailing the creation of road funds and road agencies, and made significant progress on road maintenance. However, many challenges remain to be addressed in all of them to ensure appropriate maintenance."

The EU has been one of sub-Saharan Africa's top infrastructure donors - although its investments lag considerably behind those of China, the continent's leading foreign investor in that realm. According to Devex, a development news wire, a total of 7.4 billion euros ($9.8 billion) from the European Development Fund was spent to build modern roads and highways between 1995 and 2011, according to EurActiv. Auditors reportedly inspected 48 EU-funded projects in Benin, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Chad, Tanzania and Zambia and covered some 2,400 kilometers of highways, the publication added.

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