THE ROT AT UN AGENCY IN ABUJA
In the wake of pervasive complaints of maltreatment of Nigerians in their homeland by foreign employers, it would seem that even international agencies have joined in the ill-treatment. One glaring example is the Abuja office of United Nations Drug Commission [UNODC] where the country Representative has been accused of making deliberate attempts to imbue the Nigerian staff with a sense of inferiority. Daily Sun learnt that the arrival of a German national, Ms Dagmar Thomas, has brought uneasy calm amongst the Nigerian staff, some of who confess that they have seen 'the real face of racism'.
With her coming, job security is said to have been endangered as staff who previously had annual contracts now have their time pruned to three or six months. In some cases, they sign again every month.
'Dagmar Thomas has perfected the use of short-term contracts in intimidating staff ' said a staff that dares not have his name in print.
Dagmar, whose tenure ought to have expired in last month, but has applied for extension, is apparently exploiting the alleged lopsidedness of United Nations contract system where staff are made to sign different contracts even when they do the same job.
'You have people with Short Service Agreement (SSA) who are supposed to work without leave for three years maximally. These are supposed to be consultants that work from home or wherever. There are those with Service Contract (SC), who are usually project staff, these ones enjoy leave but cannot contribute to the pensions scheme, they do not enjoy medical attention from the system. Finally, there are Fixed Term contract holders who are regarded as permanent staff and enjoy all the benefits that the other groups are denied', explained an insider.
But the irony of the Nigerian situation becomes glaring with employment figures. There are about 40 employees in UNODC, but only three are 'fixed' staff. These calibre are largely expatriates whose tenure, sometimes run into five years against the statutory three years .
Among the few Nigerians in this privileged category is a driver whose contract has now been terminated for 'medical reasons'. The pool driver[name withheld by us] deployed to serve Ms Thomas was abruptly terminated for allegedly daring to complain over anomalies in the agency bordering on the discriminatory attitude of Ms Thomas in sending staff for mission assignments, their euphemism for out-of-station jobs.
Ms Thomas was said to have gone livid with rage and berated the driver.
'Do you not know that your salary here can pay two or three people in Nigerian ministry and you are still complaining about mission work', she scolded the driver.
The driver promptly apologized, but hardly did he know that his apologies fell on deaf ears at that staff meeting of June 30, 2010.
Three months later, the daring driver got the shock of his life. The medical personnel told him pointedly that he was no longer fit to work in the agency, courtesy of a damning health report received from the New York office of the United Nations.
When the shock sank, the thoroughly distraught driver asked to be told the damaging ailment he had ignorantly borne all these while, so severe it has cost him his job. That was when he met the brickwall, where he seems stuck except Ms Thomas changes her mind or a higher authority intervenes in the pitiable plight of the 58-year-old man, only 14 months away from retirement and subsequent benefits. Sadly, he now watches helplessly as his entitlements and remaining months of service literally float away on the ebb of an unknown health controversy.
He has been tossed forth and back by the Deputy Country Director [Operations] and her boss, Ms Thomas, who severally refused disclosing the said ailment. She rather told the driver to apply for terminal leave and has stopped him from driving all UNODC vehicles. In a petition to the staff association of UN agencies in Nigeria, the driver said after days of insistence Ms Thomas told him he had high blood pressure. He said he was confounded by the revelation given that the said ailment was nothing new to the medical unit which had always given him drugs to assuage same, stressing that in his 18 and half years service to the UN agencies in Nigeria, he had never stayed away from work or been incapable of discharging his duties on account of high blood pressure.
'My blood pressure does not stay permanently high. Once I administer my drugs, it goes..', he wrote in the petition where he also revealed that he had served for a cumulative period of 25 years given that his service commenced with the UNDP in 1985.
The driver also argues that his service to Ms Thomas may have compounded his health situation because her lifestyle was such as could complicate her driver's health.
'She smokes permanently in the car and I am forced to inhale the smoke since the car has airconditioner and I close from work at such odd hours as midnight, sometimes 2am. Most times, I go back to the office to sleep after dropping her off at home at those odd hours having gone from one popular spot to the other. Now, I am being forced to leave, just like that, with nothing', he protested.
He believes that there may be more to his forced removal than meets the eye and now asks;
'Should a medical report on me be so confidential that I could not be privileged to see it nor have a copy, but my representative had free access to it even when she is neither my medical doctor nor a member of my family…, is it not ironical that despite the fact that I do not have a record of absenting myself from work on health grounds in these 18 years I should be asked to disengage when my representative whom I know had been medically evacuated twice, spending more than three months of her three years stay in the country under medical care has never been so counseled'.
As the matter drags on, awaiting the possible intervention of higher authorities, Daily Sun found that back in 2009, the Nigerian Prisons Service (NPS) headquarters in Abuja had joined issues with Ms Thomas over a project which the UNODC was handling for the service.
In the project, described as NGA/T52, a United Nations intervention project in the NPS, it was found that Ms Thomas had appointed one Mr Paul Anthony James English as a consultant whose salaries and emoluments takes about 40 per cent of the entire budget of the project. In a letter to Ms Thomas dated May 6, 2009 and signed by Dr I. W. Orakwe for the Comptroller-General the Prison authorities said;
'Management finds it rather unsettling that in a project with a total cost of USD596,700 (five hundred and ninety six thousand, seven hundred dollars), USD200,100 (two hundred thousand, one hundred US dollars] or almost 40 per cent could be set aside for to pay just one international expert…the time has come for the UNODC to impact on the Nigerian Prison…we must utilize every dime in such a way that the effect of this intervention will not only be longstanding and effective, but will be tangible enough to make an impact on the lives of prisoners…200,100 dollars to one individual, even if he is to reinvent the wheel, is not modest or accountable…'
Daily Sun, however, found that the said consultant is a certain Paul English, 43, whose pedigree in respect of the project may indeed be suspect. Insiders in the agency say he actually works from his house in London and merely comes into Nigeria occasionally to pick his cheques.
'He has uninterrupted access to all our files from his house contrary to UNODC security arrangement', wrote staff in an anonymous petition made available to Daily Sun. They also revealed that the super consultant has collected about ten million naira in consultancy fees within the year.
The real intrigue about this consultant is that his identity is shrouded in mystery following brickwalls met at every turn of investigations to unravel allegations that he may be a rehabilitated ex-convict as the project with the Nigerian Prisons has to do with rehabilitation of prisoners. Only Thomas probably knows the true position.
When this reporter contacted Ms Thomas, she said all the allegations against her were 'factually incorrect', but flatly declined comment on the said Paul English, 'requesting'' that this newspaper refrains from mentioning 'names or personal details…so as to protect these individuals from any other allegations or speculations'
She promptly responded to an electronic mail from this reporter denying virtually the foregoing, regretting that staff preferred going to the media than using 'existing internal mechanisms for addressing grievances and concerns of staff''.
Ms Thomas denied that UNODC has 'terminated' the contract of any staff on account of bad health or illness. While circumventing the specific case of her personal driver she wove the case of 'medically unfit' staff around 'UN regulations applicable to their type regarding sick leave and other entitlements', a technical jargon implying that the said driver may have lost out since his 'sick leave and entitlements' may not have been affected. But the fact of reaching retirement has also been foreclosed.
On the huge wage bill of the consultant, Ms Thomas said 'No consultant in UNODC Nigeria earns any close to or even above 200,000 US dollars'. Since Mr. English whom Thomas declined to refer to in her response is said to operate from England, perhaps, the implication is that he is not involved with 'UNODC Nigeria'.
She admitted to having travelled out twice for medical reasons on the advice of UN certified medical doctors and staff insisting that she was 'well and fit'. She, however, declined comment on allegations that she had sought an extension of tenure at the expiration of her stay in Nigeria.
The glaring fact, though is that hushed voices of oppressed local staff in the agency are gradually becoming audible and may turn into a babel. Also responding, the Communications and Visibility officer at UNODC Sa'adetu Yahaya, explained that every staff of all UN agencies are actually on contract, stating that all such contracts are renewed annually or periodically depending on the specifics. Speaking for Ms Thomas, Yahaya said disparity in pay between local and international staff was a standard practice in UN agencies, a tradition not peculiar to Nigeria. She said Dagmar Thomas had , in fact, encouraged Nigerians in the agency to go outside the country to work in order to also enjoy the status of 'international staff'.
Daily Sun learnt that the prevalent ill-treatment of local staff of the UN agencies in Africa is not peculiar to Nigeria which was why an uprising of the local staff in Uganda led to the forced exit of a UNDP Country Representative in that country. In Ethopia, matters have come to a head, such that the government there now insists on screening foreign staff of these agencies before they are permitted entry into the country.