Foreign affairs officials 'frustrated' with travel protocol breaches

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Foreign affairs officials 'frustrated' with travel protocol breaches
PM Robinah Nabbanja had a trip of shame to the US last week

Last month, Minister Betty Amongi signed a document in Qatar in error, while just last week, PM Robinah Nabbanja's bodyguard vanished in the US - like Speaker Anita Among's bodyguard did in 2022

DIPLOMACY | Uganda's foreign service is frothing in an uneasy silence over breaches in travel protocol, the Nile Post has confidentially been told.

Officials at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MoFA) and its Missions abroad, as well as the State House foreign service, have spoken of years of frustrations with the way government officials conduct trips abroad.

The frustration appears to be deeper than imagined, for "these creatures don't like regulation".

They say most government officials travelling out of the country disregard standard foreign service protocol.

"The pursuit of trips for per diem, regardless of whether or not delegations are well prepared, and the deliberate circumvention of MoFA to ensure there is no hawk eye to keep them in line is making the entire country vulnerable and a laughing stock," an official told Nile Post.

Former diplomats such as Amb Harold Acemah say it is always recommended for government employees to follow the rules and regulations and to check with the foreign service before planning any international travel.

"MoFA senior officials are absolutely right and spot-on," Amb Acemah said.

"Uganda's embassies, high commissions and consulates abroad are the bona fide and legitimate representatives of Government of Uganda as a whole, not only Ministry of Foreign Affairs."

The issue of circumventing protocol emerged with hushed tones in the shadows of a scandal involving a sports federation official.

Several parties are understood to have paid monies to get on a sports federation trip with intention of 'vanishing' abroad.

Journalists privy to the hushed human trafficking dealings at sports federation have intimidated that deliberate efforts are made to keep the affair under wraps as revelations would peel open a long-running tact of government officials helping citizens to clandestinely leave for greener pastures.

Glaring cases

The art of foreign travel is such that during lean budget times - such as last year when President Museveni banned foreign travels for civil servants and MPs - ministers will travel on their own and materialise in whatever capital poorly briefed and in a rush to leave.

Staying longer means paying their way. Many times, they have left 90 percent of the per diem back home or committed to facilitate one or two things out of the par diem.

The week started with a screaming headline by Daily Monitor that Prime Minister Robinah Nabbanja's bodyguard had vanished in the US where he had accompanied his on an official trip.

Mr Emmanuel Atwiine's disappearance follows that of Mr Aggrey Aruho, who was Speaker Anite Among's bodyguard when he left the country on a disguised official trip and vanished.

The incident, in 2022, saw investigators targeting some Parliament staff for their alleged role in facilitating Aruho to obtain a US visa to fly out.

At the time, Parliament suspended Mr Louis Bakyenga, principal private secretary to the Deputy Speaker, and Mr James Bamuwamye, a protocol officer.

The two were involved in processing travel for a Parliament team to the Uganda North American Association convention, the event Aruho had capitalised on to leave the country.

 

The Nile Post contacted the executive director of Uganda Media Centre, Mr Ofwono Opondo, on why the government was not showing the will to check these embarrassing incidents.

Mr Opondo was yet to respond at the time of filing this article.

Foreign service officials say it is usually after things go south - such as in the case of MP Nabbanja's bodyguard - that officials remember the government has certified protocol officers paid to align their travels.

"Isolated foreign trips are dangerous for the country, to put it mildly," said a consular service officer in a foreign mission abroad.

"Not to mention that it strains embassy staff to a breaking point."

Isolated delegations are easy to spot, as they tend not to have a country position, or if it exists, they are often not conversant enough with it, that they can hold their own in a negotiation.

Many times such trips are filled with parties out to collect per diem, with one or two genuine expert for the purpose tagging along.

An official in State House foreign service said many government officials, even senior ones, do not appreciate what national interest is.

The official said most people in government are after personal interests and foreign trips are just a means to advance the same.

The challenge is that the government operates in a system where those charged with responsibility of putting the cart back behind the horse close one eye when they see such breaches and the officials eventually begin to look at travels as entitlement.

This relegates national interest to the corner of the room.

"National interest demands that we put aside the parochial attitude of "my ka trip" and prioritise the greater good of the nation," the official said.

Amb Acemah blamed "institutional decay and the culture of impunity", which he said is a legacy of the NRM regime, for the foreign travel protocol breaches.

Embarrassing signature

Minister Betty Amongi and her Qatari counterpart Al-Marri signed the MoU wrongly.

The Nile Post spoke to the officials and later the Permanent Secretary at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs after it emerged that a minister had travelled to the Gulf Nation of Qatar and signed a controversial labour export agreement on behalf of the government.

While looking into the contents of the memorandum of understanding Gender, Labour and Social Development minister Betty Amongi had signed with Qatari minister of labour Ali bin Smaikh Al-Marri, it emerged that several officials at MoFA could not tell the head and tail of it even as PS Vincent Bagiire later insisted he had it all in the bag.

The copy of MoU the Nile Post later received had a rather embarrassing blooper. Ms Amongi had signed in the place of her Qatari counterpart Al-Marri - and the reverse, too.

It is not clear how this happened but some officials pointed that a lack of a consular official to direct the proceedings played a part.

An official at MoFA had indicated and confirmed with the consul in Doha that there was no foreign service involved but PS Bagiire insisted otherwise.

"This is misinformation," he said.

"We (MoFA) forwarded the note to the Minister of Gender inviting her to go and sign the labour instrument. Our mission in Qatar was involved. As such it is not true that MoFA was absent in the process."

Mr Bagiire is the first non-diplomat to hold the position of accounting officer at MoFA. He would not comment when pressed further on why the foreign ministry cannot get the Cabinet to enforce the protocol.

Amb Acemah suggested Minister Amongi's MoU lacked accreditation instruments - permission from Minister of Foreign Affairs or the President to act on their behalf without necessarily checking back - which would render it null and avoid.

But PS Bagiire insisted the MoU was started before the World Cup in Qatar.

"I wasn’t in the ministry but I know about it," he said. "They [officials doubting accreditation instrument] are not informed. They should have asked my office. The MoU was cleared by the Solicitor General in 2017."

Shown a screenshot of Minister Amongi's signature faux pas, PS Bagiire said the error was corrected by the Mission in Qatar "to the best of our knowledge".

A foreign service official, however, said they were not aware of the correction and admitted they had only learnt of the error following inquiries by Nile Post.

Amb Acemah, a retired career diplomat, said the document is null and void.

"It's fake and illegitimate," he added.

"Unfortunately, I cannot comment on his opinion or conclusion," PS Bagiire offered.

In the midst of the frustrations among foreign service officials and reluctance by technocrats at MoFA to bell the winking cat, suggestions that Parliament could be the saviour turns out to be even worse.

At Parliament, billions of shillings are spent monthly to cater for par diem for travelling parties.

Understandably, the shadow foreign minister, Mr Nkunyingi Muwada (Kyaddondo East - NUP), was not committing to the matter, telling this website feebly that he had raised a similar concern in Parliament before.

Like Amb Acemah observed, tiptoeing around foreign travels reflects negatively on the national image and prestige of the nation.

The fiasco PM Nabbanja found herself in from New York, or Speaker Among before her, and Minister Amongi, leaving the country's sovereign standing in disrepute.

And, certainly, it calls for the air ticket-happy cat to be belled. But who will bell it?

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