Monday, March 20, 2023

Secret documents detail Botswana, UNHCR clash

Confidential documents leaked to the Sunday Standard reveal a tortured diplomatic relation between Botswana government and the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), cloak and dagger operations, angry phone calls and vitriolic secret letters. The relationship which is full of whispered Directorate of Intelligence Services (DIS) operations against UNHCR envoys reached a new low earlier this year when the Ministry of Justice Defence and Security lodged a complaint with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation against UNHCR Chief of Mission Lynn Ngugi, for allegedly inciting Dukwi refugees to revolt.

Sources within diplomatic circles believe UN may be forced to recall its envoy following the complaint from Botswana government. This will not be the first time Botswana government forced UN to recall a UNHCR diplomat. A few years ago, UNHCR recalled Roy Hermann after government complained that he was meddling in the Basarwa CKGR issue. Hermann who was UNHCR head of mission insisted that his mandate was to help internationally and nationally displaced people, and the issue of Basarwa of CKGR fell within his remit.

Ngugi on the other hand has taken the war to the Botswana government and has hatched a cloak and dagger operation to purge the UNHCR of Botswana citizen staff members who she claims are spying for the government of Botswana. Sunday Standard has intercepted e-mail correspondence dated 9th September 2013 between Ngugi and her colleagues conspiring to surreptitiously get rid of citizen staff by covering up the clandestine mission as a restructuring exercise. In one of the e-mail messages, Ngugi told her fellow conspirators that, “One of our major problems here is that staff constantly share internal information with GoB (government of Botswana) including printing and forwarding emails. For us to manage this case in the least damaging ways, it is best to stick to restructuring which all staff have been informed about. Everyone on TA (Temporary Appointment) has been informed that nothing is assured and that the TAs may not be renewed. If we stick to restructuring, they will interfere less.

By “they will interfere less” Ngugi was referring, to the government of Botswana. This followed an e-mail message posted a few minutes earlier by UNHCR Assistant Regional Representative, Barbara Bentum-Williams Dotse informing Ngugi that Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Defence Justice and Security, Segakweng Tsiane had phoned to complain against UNHCR’s unfair termination of Batsile Pheko’s contract. Pheko was UNHCR Botswana Protection Associate. In the e-mail message, Dose informed Ngugi that Tsiane “called to enquire whether it was good labour practice to have terminated Ms Batsile Pheko’s contract with such short notice. I asked her whether Ms Pheko had shared a copy of her contract with her? I listened to her at length voicing her displeasure with UNHCR not abiding by good practice as per labour laws etc…. after which I responded that given that it was an HR issue and I was bound by the Code of Confidentiality, I was not in a position to disclose any information and that she could contact us formally in writing through formal channels. She became aggressive, saying that I was being defensive, she would write formally through UNDP and that since I was only an Assistant Regional Representative she wanted to talk to you. No sooner had Tsiane hanged up the phone than she headed straight to her computer to type a formal complaint to the UNHCR Regional Representative in South Africa against the “unfair separation from UNHCR service of Ms B. Pheko.”

The “confidential” letter dated 9th September 2013 was copied to UNDP Resident Representative Anders Pederson, Botswana’s Ambassador to the United Nations, Permanent Secretary to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation and Ms Ngugi. In the letter, Tsiane accuses UNHCR of unfair labour practice. Tsiane wrote that, “ we could not help appreciating, and noting with concern the issues raised by Ms Pheko with respect to what she regards as unfair labour practice in regard to how she was treated by UNHCR. Literally she was given 72 hour notification that her contract will not be renewed. “In our impartial discussion with her, it became apparent to us that she had an expectation to have been given at least a month’s notification about this decision, irrespective of any standing contract or agreement with the UNHCR. We hold the same expectation, not only as a fulfillment of a basic labour right, but as a human right as well, largerly because every individual ought to be afforded an opportunity to rearrange his/her financial obligations.”

Although the UNHCR letter of Separation stated that due to the ongoing restructuring and the cost cutting measures being implemented by UNHCR, Ms Pheko’s would not be retained, it emerged in Ms Tsiane’s complaint letter that, “It has also come to our attention that already someone is being recruited from one of this Ministry’s Departments at least at the equivalent post probably to replace Ms Pheko.” Tsiane further stated that, “I feel obliged to bring this matter to your attention and let you know that we trust this will not be a benchmark for treating Botswana citizen employees of the UNHCR.” Sources close to the UNHCR state that Ngugi’s clandestine mission to get rid of Botswana citizen staff members at UNHCR was part of a plan to frustrate a “Structural and Staffing Review for Southern Africa” proposed by the Geneva head office in May 2013 that would cost her the Botswana posting. The proposed structure communicated to Ngugi on 17th May 2013 sought to localize the UNHCR mission in Botswana.

According to the structure, a copy of which has been passed to Sunday Standard, Ngugi’s position as UNHCR Botswana Chief of Mission was to be discontinued effective 30th June 2014 and the Associate Programme Officer Galefele Beleme a Botswana citizen was “to be upgraded and re-titled to NOC Head of National Office.” In a curious turn of events Beleme’s contract with UNHCR was not renewed, although she had already been informed that she would be heading the UNHCR mission in Botswana. A number of other citizen staff members who were to be part of the new structure have since left UNHCR a few months before the structure was to be implemented. At the time of going to press, the UNHCR had not responded to a Sunday Standard questionnaire sent to them more than seven days ago.


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