Saturday, November 29, 2014

Ambassador described in court as 'Boss from Hell."

Ambasssdor Harding
Former Deputy Ambassador Bojang
This is the third installment in a series of blog posts covering the case involving eight former Gambian diplomats and staff of the Embassy in London where it is alleged that a scam involving duty-free goods valued at approximately £ 5 million over a three-year period.  You can find our previous blog posts here, and here.

In this installment, our sources cover the proceedings with Mr. Ramaraja, the former Embassy driver taking the stand who was the only defendant charged with two counts, the second charge – storing duty free at his home address in 2010.  

In that year, Mrs Maimuna Coker (former Financial Attaché) asked Mr Ramaraja to store the goods at his home because surveyors were inspecting the dilapidated building (57 Kensington Court) for estimates.  These duty free good were stored in the conference room of the building and that room contained lots of junk which were donated charitable items such as books, carpets, furniture. 

In his statement, Mr Ramaraja said that the Ambassador Mrs Elizabeth Ya Eli Harding allowed him to transport the goods in the official vehicle, registration number "1 GAM".  He did about four trips.  When the officer from the Revenue and Customs went to his house in Pinner, he was issued with a caution and never heard anything about the matter until he was asked in 2012 to attend a voluntary interview.

In his testimony, he revealed that Mrs Maimuna Coker was the only person at the High Commission, who was aware of visit by the Customs Officer and she promised to deal with the matter.  After Mr Ramaraja stopped working for the Mission, Mrs Coker called him several times to make credit card payments on her behalf and in exchange paid him cash.  

He denied calling Ambassador Harding about returning to work at the Mission because he eventually started working at the Zambia High Commission, which offered better pay and treat their drivers with respect.

In cross examination, Mr Ramaraja denied ordering duty free goods for himself because he was aware that he was not entitled to duty free and any order in his name was done without his knowledge.  Since he left, he had never visited any staff working at the Mission.

It was Mrs. Audrey Leeward to take the stand.  She was the Embassy receptionist during the period 2009 – 2012.  In her testimony, Mrs Leeward informed the court that she worked under instructions of diplomats and the handwriting on most order forms or C426 forms for duty free goods were completed by her on their instructions.  This was acknowledged by the Counsels for three diplomats – Gaston Sambou, Ebrima John and Georgina Gomez.  However, Mr Yusupha Bojang’s counsel suggested that Yusupha never gave instructions.

Mrs Leeward strongly denied it and stated that mostly a list written on a post-it note would be sent down to her requesting her to complete order forms on behalf of the diplomats and sometimes instructions came in the form of telephone calls.  She also stated that Mr Yusupha Bojang never signed any blank form before completion and Yusupha would ask her to order for his Gambian friends.  She never received any money on Yusupha Bojang’s behalf; he collected the money himself and paid his invoices. 

As receptionist in charge of the front desk, she signed for the delivery of goods at the Mission and would check the orders ensure that they tally with the delivery notes.  Once the goods are stacked in the conference room, each delivery note is put on top of the respective order and she would inform the relevant members of staff of their orders.  She confirmed that she was aware of the increase in the orders delivered at the Mission, but the representatives from the two duty free companies had always insisted that the Mission was doing nothing wrong.

She confirmed that Ambassador Harding was aware of duty free being delivered at the Mission because the deliveries were not done in secret and that door to the conference room was unlocked, in the morning, Ambassador Harding would always inspect the room.

In giving evidence, Miss Husainatou Noah, the longest serving member at the Mission testified that she had worked with quite a number of High Commissioners and Charge d’Affaires, but Ambassador Harding was like the “boss from Hell”.  She continued to tell the court about she was treated badly by the Ambassador by verbally abusing her. 
Miss Noah further told the court that she was asked by Ambassador Ya Eli Harding to order for her Gambian friends and families.  Most of the time, she (Ya Eli) would take the people to her office and give instructions that she assists Gambians.  

At one point, Ms Noah proposed to Ambassador Harding that it was not wise to give the Gambians a lot of duty free goods, but Ya Eli rejected such suggestion instead she insisted that Ms Noah help fellow Gambians by giving whatever amount was requested. She reported that previous Heads had never ordered in their name nor were they in charge of duty free.  This was always delegated to junior members of staff.

Ms. Noah continued her testimony by describing how even the fax machine was under the direct control of the Ambassador, that no one had access to it after working hours because the key was always in her custody, she would be last person to leave the building in the evening and the first person the next day morning.  According to Ms. Noah, Ambassador Harding was obsessed with the post; she kept the post box key, checked and sort out mails.  Sometimes Ambassador Harding would withhold the personal mails addressed to members of staff or even shred them.

In her knowledge of duty free goods, Ms Noah stated the C426 form sent to the Foreign & Commonwealth Office was to request for duty free goods in the name of the Mission,  in turn the FCO would approve the form before sending it to Customs Excise for release, therefore she was surprised that the staff were accused of ordering goods.

Mrs Ida Jeng Njie of the Tourist Board, the seventh accused in the duty-free scam asserted her rights to remain silent and not give evidence.  At this point, one of our sources observed that former Deputy Ambassador Bojang's testimony was "too revealing" that leaves the rest of the defendants with no option but to engage in "damage control".   

The case continues....