Thursday, November 6, 2014

Gambian Ambassador takes the stand

Gambian Ambassador to the UK, Mrs. Harding
The Gambian Ambassador to the United Kingdom, Elizabeth ya Eli Harding, took the stand today in Southwark Crown Court as key witness in the duty-free caper that saw eight members of staff of the Gambia Embassy being charged with ordering 32 tonnes of tobacco at duty-free prices thus robbing the British tax payers of an estimated £ 5 million.

The Gambian Ambassador appeared before the court today in an all black dress with a hijab but appeared nervous before the Prosecutor, and understandably so because she had to thread carefully recognizing that she's walking a minefield.

She must be answer truthfully about a scheme that bore all the trademarks of a Yaya Jammeh criminal operation with the involvement of the Jammeh family (Deputy Ambassador Yusupha Bojang) and the ruling political party apparatchik (First Secretary Mr. Gaston Sambou) among the cast of accused persons.   The Gambian dictator is obviously watching the case with keen interest and expects that both the witnesses and the accused to take the fall for him - a difficult fete for anyone who wants to be on the side of the law.

On the stand, Ambassador Harding testified that she was aware that duty-free were being ordered.  She claimed that she did not socialize with her staff nor engaged in any other matters except on official basis.  She said that her attention to the ordering of duty-free goods by a note verbale from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), and soon thereafter called her senior management team (comprising of Yusupha, Gaston. Georgina and Ebrima) and discussed the matter.

Still on the stand, the Ambassador claimed that that during the three year period no order was placed on her behalf, and even if an order was made, she wrote the order herself.  According to her, diplomats appointed by the Gambian president undergo orientation at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and they are acquainted with the Foreign Service Regulations (FSR) of The Gambia.

The defense team, according to our sources, "had a field day."  When defense counsel asked about her relations with Deputy Ambassador Bojang, she claimed that it was smooth one when it was open secret that the relationship was an acrimonious one.  Bojang being the cousin of Jammeh always reminded the Ambassador who should be Ambassador.  To admit that in court would be sending the wrong signal to Banjul, particularly to the Gambian dictator.

The defense immediately pounced by refuting her statement by suggesting that Yusupha Bojang was sidelined on the daily administration of the office, and matter were hidden from him.  The Ambassador, according to the source, started stammering and at one point the judge had to remind her of previous statements that seem to contradict her current ones.  during further cross examination, she denied having sacked ten drivers, giving, what was characterized by our sources as, flimsy excuses.

When the issue of travel to other countries Gambia is accredited, including other official travels, the Ambassador claimed that due to budget constraints she could not travel with other officials of the Embassy as she would have wished.  In response, the defense drew her attention was drawn by the defense to the contrary; that she chose when and with whom she travels with.  As regards the claim that all newly recruited diplomats receive training at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs was also disputed by the defense by cited the case of Yusupha Bojang, the deputy Ambassador who was recruited from a bottling company named GAMBENGA without the benefit of any attachment to the Foreign Ministry, and had no knowledge of how the duty-free privilege works before arriving in London.

Ambassador Harding also denied delegating the First Secretary and others to oversee the ordering of duty-free goods.  A humiliating moment in the trial came when she admitted ordering perfume but wrote the orders herself.  When presented with an order on her behalf, she was dumbfounded.  The order form was completed by Georgina but she only signed at the bottom. At this point, the barrister asked her whether a senior would sign a blank form, to which she replied no.

Even though most of the duty-free goods are delivered at the Embassy, the Ambassador denied ever seeing boxes which were kept on the ground floor, even though she inspects the building everyday.  She was called a liar and accused by the defense team of manipulating her staff.

The Ambassador has tried throughout the cross examination to distance herself from some of the accused, especially Georgina whom she has had a close relationship with.  The defense thus drew her attention to instances were she would engage staff, especially Georgina, in conversation throughout the day, which extended to her cooking, and taking food to her house on numerous occasions.

The defense also pointed out that the Ambassador had visited Georgina's house when Ms. Tina Fall, a mother of one of the accused, visited the U.K.  She had to finally admit that she had been friendly to Georgina's family and had presented her with a £ 500 wedding gift and had even sent her son and a niece to Georgina's wedding.  On this basis of their relationship, she told Georgina she can order duty-free goods for members of the Gambian community.

The court resumes tomorrow.  See you then.