As It Happens·Q&A

Lebanon's economy minister blames Beirut blast on 'incompetence' and 'stupid' decisions

Raoul Nehme says he has no doubt that criminal negligence within successive Lebanese governments led to the devastating explosion that killed more than 135 people in Beirut on Tuesday.

Raoul Nehme says country cannot recover on its own, telling international community: 'We need your help'

Lebanese Economy Minister Raoul Nehme says anyone deemed responsible for the Beirut blast will be brought to justice. (Mohamed Azakir/Reuters)

Raoul Nehme says he has no doubt that criminal negligence within successive Lebanese governments led to the devastating explosion that killed at least 135 people in Beirut on Tuesday.

More than 4,000 people were injured and huge swaths of the Lebanese capital city were destroyed in when 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate in the city's port area exploded.

The materials had been sitting in a Beirut warehouse since they were confiscated from a cargo ship in 2014, despite repeated warnings from customs officials that it was dangerous to leave them there. The government said Wednesday it is putting an unspecified number of Beirut port officials under house arrest pending an investigation.

Even before the blast, the country had been plunged deep into an economic crisis, with massive job losses, growing debt and shortages of electricity, water, and critical supplies — all exacerbated by political corruption and unrest, fighting along the southern border, and most recently, the COVID-19 pandemic

Nehme, a former banker, was appointed Lebanon's economy minister in January by new Prime Minister Hassan Diab in an effort to meet protesters' demands for a cabinet made up of people with specialized expertise, rather than partisan ties. 

He spoke to As It Happens guest host Susan Bonner about how his country plans to recover from the explosion. Here is part of their conversation. 

You just visited the site of this explosion. What was that like?

It was very sad because we have a number of casualties within our employees — missing people and dead people.

The site of destruction is really an apocalypse. It is something you cannot imagine. Everything is flattened in the place where the explosion happened. It sank into the sea. The silos are half felled, half of them unfortunately on some of our employees. And they are practically destroyed. I don't think we will be able to recover any part of it, which is a big problem for Lebanon.

Warehouses burned down, destroyed entirely. Everything is destroyed. It's absolutely terrible. 

Everywhere in Beirut, we have major damage. Glass falling, doors broken, flying through the apartments.

Our ministry, which is in the city, is entirely destroyed. Nothing is left. Everything is broken. [In] my office ... two windows fell on the place where I sit. Luckily, I was not there.

[Earlier today I was] in a meeting with importers and then supermarkets to discuss with them what they needed to make sure that we ensured supply. And we had to do a meeting outside of Beirut because we have no office any more in Beirut left that could be used.

And even five, six kilometres out of Beirut, a lot of glass is broken. In Beirut, stores are damaged badly and products in the stores [are] damaged badly as well.

So for the economy, it is absolutely terrible. We already had a major problem and now we have these huge losses. We cannot assess how much the losses are, but they are certainly in billions of dollars, and we just don't have the means to resolve these issues. We have to count on international aid, heavily.

Destroyed buildings are visible a day after a massive explosion occurred at the port in Beirut. (Daniel Carde/Getty Images)

Minister, you describe this as an apocalypse. And yet the government knew that this explosive material was sitting in this port for six years in Beirut. How much responsibility does the government bear for what happened?

Personally, I think that there is a huge responsibility for the successive governments. And this is why we established that investigation committee. And we will go to the end. Whoever was responsible since 2014 until now will have to be brought to court. And really, sanctions should be very hard.

What happened is just unacceptable. And we will go to the end of this investigation. Whoever is responsible, we will go after him, whoever it is, wherever he is.

You say there will be an investigation, but critics say this goes beyond just individuals, that this shows the negligence, incompetence and corruption that runs deep in Lebanon's political class. Would you agree with that?

Yes, we have a lot of corruption. But in this case, it's not corruption that played a role. It is certainly incompetence. It is certainly, as well, people not understanding and assessing the risks.

It is bureaucracy and, frankly, in my opinion, stupid behaviours and decisions.

A woman looks out of the collapsed facade of an apartment, damaged by the explosion. ( Marwan Tahtah/Getty Images)

But, Minister, there were warnings that came from port officials over the years. Six formal letters to the country's judiciary asking that this dangerous material be removed and, in fact, proposing ways to deal with it. How does this not go beyond just bureaucratic incompetence to criminal negligence?

What happened is criminal negligence. Absolutely. I fully agree with you. And it is criminal negligence from a lot of people.

But I don't want to go beyond the investigation and say what my personal opinion is. The investigation will happen, and everyone that has a responsibility in it, everyone will have to be punished, will have to bear the consequences of what we lived through.

As for the economic consequences, that is your responsibility directly. How can you recover from this when ... Lebanon was already dealing with virtual economic collapse, and now this?

Well, even before this, I was very clear, stating that without [the International Monetary Fund], we cannot get out of this problem and out of these issues. 

IMF brings two things to the table. It brings financing, and [it] brings discipline. And that discipline brings in other assistance from the World Bank, from other countries, from [the International Financing Corporation] and so on.

So this is really what is important and what leads us to go to this program. But that was before. And now we have added this really cataclysm, as I told you. We just can't handle it. We don't have the means to handle it.

I'll give you just one example. Where are we going to bring all the glass to replace windows? We just don't have that. Where are we going to bring the aluminum? We don't have that. All the doors, all the knobs, all the warehouses that were burned down.

We lived through a small Hiroshima.... It is really something that is just absolutely incredible.

So, what do you want me to say? It's appalling. All day we have been working on emergency plans. And I have to say that we are very lucky that a lot of countries have been proposing that assistance, and [French] President [Emmanuel] Macron is coming tomorrow to Lebanon to prove once again that France is with us.

You talk about all the supplies that you will need to rebuild. Supplies will be forthcoming, as you say. But how do you convince the international community that you have the right government and the right bureaucracy and the credibility to do what needs to be done?

There is only one way to do it. Only one way and not two way. Not 19 ways. One way. We have to do the reforms that have been requested by the international community for over 20 years.

You are not a politician. You were brought in as a technocrat to help deal with the economic crisis. Do you personally believe that there is the political will to change the way Lebanon is governed?

I believe that the politicians will all have woken up to the problem enough to understand that we have now to stand united and work hand-in-hand to resolve all these problems. Because this is the solution. We have to stop bickering. Political bickering doesn't take us anywhere. It takes us to a bigger problem.

Debris covers a street in Beirut after Tuesday's massive explosion. (Marwan Tahtah/Getty Images)

You had hope when you took this job six months ago. How much hope do you have now, given everything that Lebanon has to face?

Look, with this new crisis, it's getting more difficult. But I am always hopeful. My nature is to fight and never stop fighting, and to succeed. 

So I am hopeful. And, always, there is light at the end of the tunnel. It is going to be difficult. It's going to be hard. It's going to be painful. Very painful. But we will succeed.

What do you say to so many people in Lebanon? To the many Canadians who have family in Lebanon who feel so hopeless right now?

We need your help.

Written by Sheena Goodyear with files from The Associated Press. Interview produced by Jeanne Armstrong. Q&A edited for length and clarity.

Add some “good” to your morning and evening.

A variety of newsletters you'll love, delivered straight to you.

Sign up now