Free-spending union boss fired after office hours

18 Jul 2018

The head of the Botswana Nurses Union (BONU) secretariat, Keoopetse Paphane, dramatically lost her job with all its trappings on Thursday night during an extraordinary general conference that was purposefully designed to achieve such outcome.

Elected Secretary General last year, Paphane automatically became the Chief Executive Officer of the 7000-member union whose headquarters are in Extension 12, Gaborone. However, a series of ill-fated spending decisions that she made did more than raise eyebrows and three months ago, consumed the time and energy of delegates at an annual general conference (AGC) that was held at the Ave Maria Pastoral Centre in Gaborone. One expenditure item related to this year’s edition of the popular Hamptons Jazz Concert which was held in Gaborone North in April.

Ahead of this concert – which was headlined by nineties superstar, Billy Ocean - BONU bought tickets worth P100 000 with the intention of reselling them to members. Such was the thrill of the concert organisers that on January 30 this year, they posted the following message on their Facebook wall using typically rules-free Facebookese: “Good day cdes and hamptonnettes.. This is to let you know that BOTSWANA NURSES UNION (BONU) has come on board to partner with the Hamptons Jazz 2018! Oh Thank You nurses of Botswana!! In all corners of the country you are working in, relax, don't rush to Avani, for your Nurses Union will soon have discounted tickets for both Single and Couples tickets for you. You are advised to make payments in two installments for easy payment arrangement has been made for you at Bonu offices. Thank you for the hard work you do, we appreciate you.”

Sunday Standard’s information is that BONU was able to resell a few tickets, managing to recoup only P17 000. Most astounding of all though is that this partnership had no written contract - as ordinarily happens when institutions that don’t operate by word of mouth get into a formal partnership. The Ave Maria AGC also heard that contrary to what the constitution says, financial regulations were not followed when this deal was sealed. As her April 30 Facebook picture-post shows, Paphane did herself attend the concert. Casually dressed and smiling from ear to ear, she is reclining on a camp chair and appears to be scrolling on the touch screen of her Samsung smartphone. To Keoagetse Keoagetse Kgwabi’s comment (“At the Hampton's festival! Ga o itsietse nnaka. Enjoy while you still can. E sere ka moso wa emela bo ha nkabo.”), Paphane replied, “Very true big sister.”

All along remunerated at the C1 scale by the government, Paphane earned the equivalent of a D2 salary when she became Secretary General. This was a result of BONU topping up her salary in addition to giving her housing allowance of P4000 a month. The latter notwithstanding, Paphane never moved out of the government house in Lobatse where she had been stationed at Athlone Hospital. Some members felt this was highly improper.

“This is no different from the case of the four High Court judges who were suspended because they were getting housing allowance while staying in government houses,” says a source. “She should have freed up the house to allow another nurse who is renting an expensive privately-owned house in Lobatse to move in.”

In addition to this double benefit, Paphane had, in some cases, stayed at a Gaborone hotel at BONU expense. Last year December, during the festive season, BONU incurred another dubious expense on her behalf: she bought an air ticket for personal travel from Maun to Gaborone. This happened after the BONU office had shut down for the holidays and Paphane was herself on leave. She would later reimburse the money when this spending decision was questioned but that something lie that happened rankled with some members. Concern had also been raised about her claiming sitting allowance for attending meetings in Gaborone (her work station) when such attendance should ordinarily be considered part of the job that she was paid to do.

At the Ave Maria AGC, a motion to recall both Paphane and the BONU president, Obonolo Rahube, was tabled but one section of delegates opposed it. Rahube was faulted for having authorised unlawful expense. A delegate who supported this motion says that the motion didn’t yield the desired results because the proceedings were rigged. As chairperson, Rahube is said to have allowed premeditated filibustering by delegates who supported him and Paphane. Notwithstanding the documentary evidence that quoted specific amounts, dates as well as the names of office holders (Rahube and Paphane) who signed the cheques, some of Rahube’s supporters are said to have dismissed the report as containing “mere allegations.” Rahube himself would use the same language when Sunday Standard sought his side of the story: “Whoever came to you with such allegations is in dire hunger to tarnish our organisation’s image & its reputation.”

The nature of democratic discourse – which BONU espouses - is that to the extent possible, every delegate with a hand up should be given an opportunity to speak. With Rahube’s generous indulgence, the motion opposers are said have filibustered until midnight when the quorum collapsed and the AGC broke up. However, one very important resolution was made: the appointment of a three-member commission of enquiry to investigate what one side said were mere allegations and the other said were facts. Another important development from the AGC was the invocation of Article 6.2.2 of BONU’s constitution by the Selebi Phikwe branch. The latter says that “Every member of the Union shall have the right to inspect documents and records.” Last month, a delegation from the branch spent three full days inspecting documents and records at the BONU office.

At the insistence of some members, the union held an extraordinary general conference last Thursday at Paddock Conference Centre in Gaborone. Reporting back at this conference, the commission of enquiry confirmed allegations of gross financial mismanagement to be factual. That was further confirmed by the audit report from the Selebi Phikwe branch. Now mellowed, Rahube explained what led to the Hamptons and the flight ticket expenses to the delegates: upon going on an out-of-town trip to attend some urgent personal business, he had signed blank cheques at the BONU office and entrusted them to the care of Paphane as BONU CEO. With neither his knowledge nor authority, one cheque was issued to organisers of the Hamptons and the other to Air Botswana. As a result, the tables began turning against Paphane. The BONU constitution says that “An office bearer shall be recalled by a majority of 55 percent of those eligible to vote in that particular structure.” When the latter provision was invoked and the issue put to a vote, 77 delegates (55.6 percent) voted yes, 54 voted no and nine votes were spoiled. It was precisely at the moment results were announced that Paphane was no longer BONU CEO.

The Paddock conference comes after the regime-change group that wanted to eject Paphane had collected 1048 signatures (overshooting the 720-signatures requirement) across the country to provided legal basis for the holding of the conference. Initially, Rahube was also in the sights of this group but was spared the humiliation on the reasoning that his ouster would require another costly national meeting that had to be held within 90 days.

The issue could reverberate beyond BONU. At least one Central Executive Committee (CEC) member in Francistown is said to have personally had an improper financial relationship with BONU. The Ministry of Health and Wellness provides funding for the Botswana Nurses Day and for last year’s commemoration, it so happened that a CEC member who was part of the BONU organising committee – the very committee that adjudicated over the tenders – won a tender to procure some materials for the event. The peculiarity of this case is that while all the other cases involve BONU money, this one involves government money that should have been disbursed according to established public procurement law. This particular case could attract the attention of the Directorate on Corruption and Economic Crime.

In being recalled, Paphane – who was on secondment, returns to the Emergency Medical Services department at Athlone Hospital in Lobatse, goes back to earning a C1 salary and loses P4000 a month as housing allowance as well as round-the-clock use of an institutional car. BONU will write to the Ministry of Health and Wellness to appraise it of this development. The Deputy Secretary General (Labour and Bargaining) Kenneth Matlakele will be brought in as Acting Secretary General until June next year when the union holds an elective congress. The latter is a lecturer at the Molepolole Institute of Health Sciences.