Never a dull day in the life of an African diplomat

THE United States has reportedly asked Uganda to waive the diplomatic immunity of one of its diplomats at the United Nations, after an employee fled the envoy’s employ citing pay less than the American minimum.

The independent Daily Monitor reported that the United States wants the third secretary at the mission, Robert Mugimba, to respond to charges laid against him by his help, Rachael Nuwamanya, who is now at a shelter in New York.

Mugimba told the publication in an interview that the claims were false and stemmed from “personal wars and intrigue”.

As Kampala probes the incident, the newspaper ran a riveting series on the near-dysfunction in the country’s embassies abroad, with incessant feuds over funding, and more bizarrely, that some envoys and staff were invoking witchcraft to remain in their jobs.

One family is named as petitioning Ugandan officials after their daughter, who was also working as an envoy’s help in Europe, flew back home claiming to have been initiated in the secret underworld of spirits, following which she started seeing, and hearing, strange things.

Her family has reportedly referred to the ordeal as “high class witchcraft being exhibited in high [Ugandan] offices”. But the claims of unorthodoxy around Uganda’s envoys, many of whom are political appointees hoisted over career diplomats, would not look out of place alongside some other peculiar diplomatic episodes in the continent’s independent history.

Kwame and Sekou Toure

1n 1966, Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah was deposed while enroute to China. His great friend and Guinea’s first president, Ahmed Sekou Touré, took him in as his co-president, even though they could not speak to each other without a translator — one spoke English, the other French.

The new rulers in Ghana, seeking Nkrumah’s return, kidnapped Touré’s foreign minister off a Pan American plane headed to an Organisation for African Unity (now African Union) meeting in Ethiopia, and which had stopped in the Ghanaian city of Accra. Guinea, with no leverage on Ghana, in turn detained American diplomats back home.


“The long and the short of it was, you see, they [the Guineans] put two and three together. Because it was a Pan Am plane, that made it an official plane: it must be a CIA plot. We were the tools of that regime in Accra, Ghana. So by God, they were going to sit on me and all the other Americans until the Ghanaians gave up the Guinean Foreign Minister,” Robinson Mcilvaine, who was the US ambassador to Guinea between 1966-69 narrated.

The OAU meeting didn’t take place, and diplomats were released after a week following frantic negotiations by African ministers from Kenya, Sierra Leone and Zaire (now Democratic Republic of Congo).

Touré found it hard to apologise directly, and to go round this, asked the American to accompany him to a meeting with regional governors.

McIvaine says the Guinea leader opened up the meeting and said: “I want to introduce, before we get into the business, my friend the American ambassador.

“You all know what happened to him a couple of weeks ago. It shouldn’t have happened to a dog.

“They all stood up and pounded their feet and clapped like crazy.” That was the apology to the Americans for their house arrest.

Nigerian kidnap in Britain

In 1984, British customs police at Stansted airport opened a crate only to find former Nigerian transport minister Umaru Dikko lying inside, unconscious.
Alongside him was an Israeli doctor whose job was to keep Dikko alive during transit, in a case that has become standard reading in diplomatic law.

The minister had fled a year earlier when the elected government of Nigeria was overthrown in a coup, the resulting military regime, which was led by Muhammadu Buhari, who is now the country’s incumbent — but elected — president. Dikko was accused of gorging on public funds as a crony of the deposed leader, Shehu Shagari, who, even by the country’s indulgent standards, led one of Nigeria’s most avaricious regimes.

The incident, led to a major diplomatic fallout between a fervently nationalistic Nigeria and former colonial master Britain, with relations only fully restored two years later.

There have also been more recent drama.

Erratic Yahya Jammeh

The Gambia’s leader Yahya Jammeh often hogs the media spotlight for an erratic administration, but in December 2014, seven of the country’s diplomats at the London posting briefly wrested away the limelight from him. The group of diplomats were found guilty by a London court of running a huge tax-dodging tobacco operation, with former deputy mission head Yusupha Bojang, then 54, identified as the mastermind of the racket.

He ordered half-a-million packets of tax-free rolling tobacco, said to be 29 tonnes, over three years and sold it out of the west London building, becoming so bold that long queues of customers were lining up outside to buy.

The four Gambians and three local embassy workers were all found guilty and sentenced to various sentences. Banjul waived immunity for its envoys, who were to be deported after sentencing, even as defence lawyers protested they faced more serious consequences from Jammeh back home.

In 2013 South Africa recalled and fired an envoy after he was found walking naked in Shanghai, China, streets, in addition to assaulting his ambassador. He was later said to have health problems, even as he insisted that he had not been sacked but had only been redeployed.

Death in Venezuela’s Kenya mission

While not strictly involving African diplomats, events at the Venezuelan embassy in Kenya in 2012 still baffle many experts of international law. In July, veteran diplomat Olga Fonseca Gimenéz turned up dead in her official residence, just two weeks after she took over.

The man accused of killing her, Dwight Sagaray, had been acting in the position for two months, a meteoric rise for a man only 35 at the time. Prosecutors say he did not take too well to his ambitions being tempered, in a murder case that has been dragging in Nairobi courts.

Caracas swiftly stripped him of diplomatic immunity — a rare event as countries prefer to recall envoys — just a day after Fonseca’s death. The Nairobi mission was seemingly full of drama — Gerardo Carrillo-Silva, who had held the position until May that year, departed amid rancour after male workers at his official residence accused him of chasing them around the house while naked. He denies the claims of indecent exposure.

Sour love and diplomacy

The UN was also the setting of a curious interplay between the personal and diplomatic life of Mozambique’s chief representative, Antonio Diende Fernandez. In August 1989, when his love for his American wife Barbara waned, he waived his diplomatic immunity so as to take her to court — where he lost their multi-million dollar estate (the house had 20 rooms and an indoor swimming pool) to her.

To avoid meeting his legal obligations to her Fernandez again invoked diplomatic immunity — but still lost in a saga that eventually ended up before the Supreme Court.

The Nigerian-born Fernandez died in September in Belgium, a billionaire.

An “idiot” of a president

It can also get local. In November 2014, new Malawi President Peter Mutharika picked Thoko Banda as his ambassador to Zimbabwe.

But social media users quickly dredged up an interview that Banda did with a German publication where he expressed his candid opinion on his would-be host, Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe.

“Zimbabwe has an idiot — I am sorry, I know you are recording — but they have an idiot for president.

“This guy Robert Mugabe, I hope that he lives a long time, so that one day he can go before an international tribunal. He is a horrible man.”

Banda duly turned down his appointment, saying he had not even been consulted. “I am sure there are other Malawians more amenable to serving at that particular post at this particular time,” he said in a statement.

The internet truly does not forget. – M&G Africa

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