U.S. Embassy Gabon: State/OIG’s Ode to All Things Dreadful in a Small Post

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For small posts in the Foreign Service, the Eagles’ ‘This could be heaven or this could be Hell’ line is often appropriate.  And in the case of the U.S. Embassy Libreville in Gabon, it sounds pretty much like the later. With few exceptions, it’s hard to find things that are working well at the embassy in Gabon based on State/OIG’s inspection. The report lists career diplomat Joel Danies as U.S. Ambassador who arrived at post in March 2018. The listed DCM Randall Merideth arrived at post in August 2017.

Although we don’t have the date, the embassy’s top two officials must have departed post sometime this past winter.  By March 2019, CDA Robert Scott was listed as CDA (chargé d’affaires), with Sam Watson as DCM (deputy chief of mission).  As of this writing, the U.S. Embassy in Libreville is headed by Chargé d’Affaires Sam Watson.  The June 18, 2019 Key Officers of Foreign Service Posts for Gabon (PDF) does not list a Deputy Chief of Mission.

We understand that retired Ambassador Robert Whitehead who was appointed three times as  Chargé d’Affaires to Sudan and was previously the U.S. Ambassador to Togo (2012-2015) has been recalled to service as full ambassador to Libreville. He reportedly arrived in D.C. this past weekend for consultations before going to post. 

The OIG inspection team was headed by former Ambassador to Micronesia Peter Prahar.  Below are selected excerpts from the OIG report on Gabon. You may read the entire report here (PDF).

Post Snapshot:

At the time of the inspection, Embassy Libreville had 36 U.S. direct-hire positions, 116 LE staff members, and 8 eligible family member positions. Other agencies at the embassy included the Department of Defense and the Department of the Interior. The Department of State (Department) completed the new embassy compound, including the chancery, a warehouse, and other facilities, in 2012. [..] A related classified inspection report discusses the embassy’s security program and issues affecting the safety of embassy personnel and facilities.

OIG Sources:

OIG assessed Embassy Libreville’s leadership on the basis of 73 interviews that included comments on Front Office performance; staff questionnaires; and OIG’s review of documents and observations of embassy meetings and activities during the course of the on-site inspection.

Front Office Background:

The Ambassador, a career member of the Senior Foreign Service, arrived in Gabon in March 2018 after an assignment as Associate Dean of the Department’s Foreign Service Institute School of Professional and Area Studies. His previous assignments included management and political positions in Belize, Switzerland, and Afghanistan, and he served as Deputy Special Coordinator in the Office of the Haiti Special Coordinator.

The Deputy Chief of Mission (DCM), a career Foreign Service officer, arrived in August 2017 after an assignment as director of the Minneapolis Passport Agency. His previous Department assignments included consular and management positions in Cote d’Ivoire, Afghanistan, South Africa, and Germany. He had served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Gabon.

Ambassador Did Not Set a Positive and Professional Tone for the Embassy

OIG found that the Ambassador did not set a positive and professional tone for the embassy in accordance with Department leadership and management principles outlined in 3 Foreign Affairs Manual (FAM). In interviews with embassy staff, OIG found that the Ambassador’s verbal outbursts created anxiety and impeded communication and embassy operations. The Ambassador told OIG that he was passionate and committed to improving embassy operations and advancing U.S. interests in Gabon but that he became increasingly frustrated when the staff did not appear to respond to his directives or keep him informed of significant developments. He also acknowledged that he sometimes cursed at employees. American and LE staff told OIG that they were reluctant to provide the Ambassador with complete information on developing situations, fearing they would receive a negative reaction if he did not like what he heard. Finally, OIG noted during the inspection that the Ambassador was in conflict with a key member of the embassy’s security team over an issue that occurred 2 months before the inspection. This conflict resulted in an almost complete lack of communication between the Ambassador and this individual. In discussing the conflict with OIG, the Ambassador agreed that it was essential for embassy security that he take action to repair his relationship with the security team.

The Department’s leadership and management principles require leaders to hold themselves to the highest standards of conduct and to be self-aware. OIG advised the Ambassador to take advantage of the Department’s leadership and coaching programs. The Ambassador welcomed the advice, telling OIG that it was exactly the type of feedback he had hoped to obtain from the inspection. He also committed to work on his tone with staff by moderating the volume of his voice and eliminating the use of profanities.

Ambassador and Deputy Chief of Mission Did Not Form an Effective Leadership Team

The Ambassador and the DCM did not form an effective leadership team, as described in 2 FAM 113.2, which requires the DCM to serve as alter ego to a chief of mission in coordinating mission activity to meet broad program needs. Specifically, OIG found that the Ambassador did not establish clear expectations for the DCM regarding his responsibilities to manage the embassy. For example, the two officers had not agreed on a work requirements statement for the DCM, which should have been prepared within 45 days of the Ambassador’s arrival in March 2018, as required by 3 FAH-1 H-2815.1a(1). In discussing this issue with OIG, the Ambassador agreed that he had been remiss in not making it clear to the DCM what was expected of him. OIG also found that the Ambassador directly assigned tasks to LE staff members without informing the DCM or section chiefs. He told OIG his intent in doing this was to be personable, accessible, and aware of embassy operations. However, OIG found that the Ambassador was unaware that the practice frustrated supervisors. Embassy supervisors told OIG that although they often did not know about the assignments, the Ambassador subsequently would hold them accountable if the projects were not completed.

Oh, Lordy!

OIG found the DCM to be generally unengaged in embassy operations, unfamiliar with the work of the embassy’s sections, and uninvolved in performance management, as discussed later in this report. The DCM told OIG that in the 6 months prior to the inspection, he had prioritized introducing the Ambassador to Gabon but that in the future he would turn his attention to embassy operations.

Deputy Chief of Mission May Have Violated Anti-Nepotism Guidelines

The DCM likely did not comply with the requirements of 3 FAM 8312 to avoid nepotism and the appearance of nepotism in all employment matters. Embassy staff told OIG that the DCM repeatedly urged them to identify an embassy job for his spouse, either by selecting her for an eligible family member position or by encouraging other embassy agencies to create a position for her. This conduct is inconsistent with Department policy. Guidelines in 3 FAM 8324 state that an employee must scrupulously insulate himself or herself from acts benefiting, affecting, or giving the appearance of benefiting or affecting a relative’s career or responsibilities. The DCM denied to OIG that he had pressured anyone to create a position for his spouse or that he had made any comments to compel another embassy agency to hire his spouse. However, based on a review of documentation and interviews with embassy staff, OIG found that the DCM’s actions to secure embassy employment for his spouse likely violated Department standards. Additionally, as discussed further in the Human Resources section of this report, his conduct negatively affected embassy operations, as embassy staff sought to avoid the issue entirely by not advertising to fill any vacant eligible family member positions.

Embassy Did Not Advertise Eligible Family Member Positions (Or how five vacancies could have been filled by  5 of 8 EFMs) 

At the time of the inspection, the embassy had four vacant eligible family member positions that it had not advertised. In addition, another family member was due to transfer within a month, but the embassy had not advertised for a replacement. Management staff told OIG they were reluctant to advertise any eligible family member positions because they feared pressure to select the DCM’s spouse for one of the positions. (This is discussed in more detail in the Executive Direction section.) OIG advised the embassy to advertise and to comply with Department standards if the DCM’s spouse applies for the vacant positions. Failure to advertise eligible family member positions hindered the embassy’s operational efficiency.

Deputy Chief of Mission Did Not Review Nonimmigrant Visa Adjudications as Required

The DCM did not review nonimmigrant visa adjudications in a timely manner, as required by Department guidelines. A Bureau of Consular Affairs analysis showed that from April 1 through June 15, 2018, the DCM reviewed nonimmigrant visa adjudications twice, with an average lag time of 90 days between the visa adjudications and the DCM’s reviews. According to 9 FAM 403.12-1d, however, reviewing officers must review adjudications within 3 business days. The DCM had no explanation for this deficiency. Failure to review visa adjudications in a timely manner increases the risk of visa malfeasance or improper adjudications.

Ambassador, Deputy Chief of Mission Failed to Establish Work Requirements for American Personnel

Neither the Ambassador nor the DCM followed Department guidelines regarding completion of work requirements for American staff. Specifically, at the time of the inspection, the Ambassador and the DCM had not established written work requirements for any of their subordinates within 45 days of the beginning of the rating cycle, as required by 3 FAH-1 H- 2815.1a(1). Developing work requirements ensures that both the supervisor and subordinate participate in the process to develop a mutual understanding of the expectations for the subordinate’s work and how it aligns with the embassy’s goals and priorities. The DCM told OIG he was unfamiliar with Foreign Service performance management requirements because, in his previous assignment, he had only supervised Civil Service employees. Failure to establish work requirements in a timely manner disadvantages employees and can harm operations. Without clear expectations set at the beginning of the performance cycle, employees risk not understanding how to meet or exceed their supervisor’s expectations to achieve organizational objectives.

Embassy Did Not Comply with Department Guidelines on Acceptance of Gifts

The embassy did not adhere to 2 FAM 960 guidelines regarding the solicitation and acceptance of gifts to the Department. Embassy staff told OIG that the embassy did not review the list of companies solicited for July 4th contributions to ensure that proposed donors were neither seeking substantial assistance from the embassy nor would be substantially affected by a pending or reasonably anticipated official action, as required by 2 FAM 962.8a(1). As a result, at least one company for which the Ambassador had actively advocated was solicited for a contribution. The Ambassador also accepted travel on an aircraft chartered by the same company without seeking concurrence of White House Counsel, as required by 2 FAM 962.12h. Failure to comply with these guidelines could create the appearance of partiality or favoritism on the part of the U.S. Government.

And more!

State/OIG made 28 recommendations.  The Department and the U.S. Agency for Global Media concurred with 25 recommendations and disagreed with 3. State/OIG Recommendation 1 says that “The Director General of the Foreign Service and Director of Human Resources should review whether anti-nepotism violations occurred at Embassy Libreville and, based on the results of its review, take appropriate action. (Action: DGHR).”

In its May 29, 2019, response, DGHR disagreed with this recommendation. “DGHR does not concur with the recommendation. The individual in question has left the Department, so no further action is necessary.” 

The report’s second recommendation says that “Embassy Libreville should comply with Department guidelines regarding the acceptance of gifts. (Action: Embassy Libreville)”

Management Response: In its June 3, 2019, response, Embassy Libreville disagreed with this recommendation. The embassy noted that the travel was not provided as a gift and that travel orders were issued for the Ambassador to accompany Board of Directors members to observe the offshore drilling site by helicopter and return by commercial aircraft. The embassy also noted that actions taken by the Ambassador and embassy staff to facilitate access of a U.S. company to the appropriate Gabonese Government officials were consistent with the guidance provided in 2 Foreign Affairs Manual 962.8 that the entity was not “…seeking substantial assistance from post (e.g., nonroutine consular assistance or nonroutine commercial advocacy or assistance) nor would be substantially affected by a pending or reasonably anticipated post official action….”

OIG writes that it considers the recommendation unresolved. “Notwithstanding the embassy’s rationale, the Ambassador’s acceptance of travel on an aircraft chartered by a company for which the Ambassador actively advocated could create the appearance of partiality or favoritism on the part of the U.S. The recommendation can be closed when OIG receives and accepts documentation of Embassy Libreville’s compliance with Department guidelines regarding the acceptance of gifts.”

OIG’s number 3 recommendation says “Embassy Libreville should comply with Department instructions and guidance on reporting significant political, economic, and societal developments.”

Management Response: In its June 3, 2019, response, Embassy Libreville disagreed with this recommendation. The embassy noted it complies with reporting guidance and dispatched cables and communications on significant political, economic, and societal developments through every channel available despite a severely depleted formal reporting staff.

OIG writes that it considers the recommendation unresolved. “During the inspection, OIG identified numerous instances where the Ambassador did not report the results of substantive meetings with business leaders, host government officials, and other senior contacts. The recommendation can be closed when OIG receives and accepts documentation that Embassy Libreville is reporting on significant political, economic, and societal developments.”

 

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Gabonese Military Stages Coup Attempt in Libreville

Posted: 12:49 AM PST
Updated: 1:06 AM PST
Updated: 10:30 AM PST

Reuters is reporting that Gabon has thwarted the attempted coup and the government has killed or arrested the plotters. On January 7, U.S. Embassy Libreville in Gabon posted four Security Alerts on the embassy’s website. The first one warns of “possible anti-government military activity underway.” The second alert says “Embassy has advised the family members of U.S. citizen employees and local staff members to remain in their homes today.  Out of an abundance of caution as we further assess the situation, the Embassy has asked the families of U.S. citizen employees to keep their children at home from school tomorrow.” The third alert says “The Embassy has advised local staff members to remain at home.  U.S. Citizen employees have been told to avoid the downtown area.” The fourth, and latest alert posted as of this writing includes the following:

In light of recent anti-government activity, the U.S. Embassy has requested that Embassy personnel restrict their movements to the area north of Léon-Mba International Airport from dusk tonight until dawn tomorrow.  Embassy personnel and their families are advised to continue to exercise increased caution tomorrow by avoiding the downtown area and limiting unnecessary travel. Although the Léon-Mba International Airport is open at this time, a number of flights have been cancelled. Those who plan to travel in the next few days should contact the airport or their airline to confirm flight status.

The Security Alerts are posted on the embassy’s website but none are posted on Twitter or Facebook. Best we could tell @TravelGov has posted all the alerts here but only the second Security Alert on Twitter. The main State Department account @StateDept has not posted any of the Alerts. 

Website U.S. Embassy Libreville Gabon+241 0145 7100
Email: librevilleacs@state.gov
State Department – Consular Affairs: 888-477-4747 or 202-501-4444

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On January 4, the Trump Administration notified Congress of U.S. troop deployment to Libreville, Gabon, in anticipation of potential security requirement at the US Embassy Kinshasa, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (see Military Personnel Deploys to Gabon in Support of US Embassy Kinshasa Security #DRC).

Early Monday morning, Gabonese soldiers appeared on state television announcing a coup in the West African country. Tanks and armed vehicles are reportedly in the streets of the capital, Libreville and a curfew has been imposed. The Internet has reportedly been shutdown. As of this writing there are no alerts, emergency message, or security updates from the U.S. Embassy Libreville (embassy last posted on Twitter and FB the day before the shutdown). There is no update from @StateDept. The Gabon situation is developing.

Regional Map with Gabon, Democratic Republic of the Congo

Regional Map with Gabon, Democratic Republic of the Congo

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U.S. Embassy Libreville Cancels Routine Services For Sept2 Following Gabon Demonstrations

Posted: 3:24 am ET
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On September 1, the US Embassy in Gabon released a security message concerning the protests and demonstrations roiling the country. It announced that it will be open for limited operations only on Friday, September 2.

The U.S. Embassy in Libreville informs U.S. citizens that widespread, violent demonstrations, rioting and looting have taken place in Libreville, particularly in the area of Cite de la Democratie-Voie Express-Boulevard Triomphal, and extending through many of the city’s central and southern neighborhoods following the announcement of presidential election results.  Further protests and demonstrations are expected in the coming days.

Security forces have responded to the situation with tear gas and have placed roadblocks at major arterial roads, cutting off transportation across the city. There is also debris and burned cars blocking the roads in some areas.

There are reports of violence in the cities of Oyem, Bitam, Port Gentil and Lambarene.

At this time the airport is open and operational and commercial flights are available.  The Embassy recommends U.S. citizens remain in a safe location and avoid non-essential movement. The Embassy continues to monitor the situation and will update you as appropriate.

Review your personal security plans, remain aware of your surroundings, including local events, and monitor local news stations for updates.  Be vigilant and take appropriate steps to enhance your personal security.

The U.S. Embassy in Libreville will be open with limited operations on Friday, September 2.  Routine consular services have been cancelled, but emergency consular services for U.S. citizens continue to be available.

 

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Peace Corps Volunteer Karen Phillips’ Gabonese Killer Sentenced to Life for 1998 Murder

— By Domani Spero

On December 16, 1998, a Peace Corps volunteer attended a swearing-in ceremony at a small city in Gabon, some 200 miles from the capital city of Libreville.  Reports said she went with three friends to a small bar near her house to celebrate, left the bar around midnight and never made it back to her house.  The next day, a young girl on her way to school found Karen Phillips  body.

This December will the 15th death anniversary of Karen Phillips, the Peace Corps volunteer murdered in the African county of Gabon. She was there to help farmers to better market their produce and teach English at a local school.

On November 19, 2013,  the Peace Corps announced that Thierry “Rambo” Ntoutoume Nzue was convicted for the 1998 murder of 37-year-old Peace Corps/Gabon Volunteer Karen Phillips. A Gabonese criminal court sentenced Ntoutoume Nzue to life in prison. One individual was previously charged with murder and two others, including this “Rambo” were charged in connection with the killing.  Below is the full text of the announcement:

Libreville, Gabon, Nov. 19, 2013 – Thierry “Rambo” Ntoutoume Nzue was convicted Tuesday for the 1998 murder of 37-year-old Peace Corps/Gabon Volunteer Karen Phillips. A Gabonese criminal court sentenced Ntoutoume Nzue to life in prison.

Phillips served in Oyem, an agricultural city of about 40,000 in the coastal African nation of Gabon. She worked as an agro-forestry volunteer, helping local farmers market their agricultural products.

“She just loved helping people,” said Richard Phillips, Karen’s father. “That’s the type of person she was. Karen was a doer and a giver.”

Prior to joining the Peace Corps, Phillips worked in Atlanta as a fundraiser for the international development organization, CARE. A native of Delaware County, Pa., Karen received her bachelor’s degree in accounting from Villanova University in 1982, and a master’s degree in business administration from Fordham University in 1989.

“There is nothing harder for this agency than losing a volunteer, and after many years, I wholeheartedly hope the Phillips family can now find a sense of comfort and closure,” Peace Corps Acting Director Carrie Hessler-Radelet said. “I am extremely grateful to those who have relentlessly sought justice for Karen Phillips and her family for more than a decade.”

Phillips was found stabbed to death on December 17, 1998. Since her death, an investigative team led by the Gabonese judicial police, with the assistance of the Peace Corps Office of Inspector General (OIG), the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the U.S. Department of State’s Diplomatic Security Service, and the U.S. Embassy in Libreville have worked to pursue justice for Phillips. In late 2012, the government of Gabon formally requested, through the international police organization INTERPOL, that U.S. federal law enforcement assist in the investigation of the murder. The team revisited all aspects of the crime. Subsequently, Ntoutoume Nuze was identified, brought to trial, and convicted by Gabonese authorities.

“Everyone who has worked on Karen’s case over the years has been deeply moved by both her life of commitment to service and her tragic death,” Peace Corps Inspector General Kathy A. Buller said. “I hope this verdict will bring a degree of peace to her family and friends.”

According to news reports, Karen Phillips had been a PCV for less than a year when she was killed.

“Karen and volunteers Stacy Jupiter and Lynne Kraskouskas had just been to the swearing-in party on Dec. 16 when they stopped at a small bar near Phillips’ house.

As the three sipped beer and ate Chips Ahoy! cookies, a drunken man approached the women saying he was Phillips’ neighbor. Phillips brushed off his advances, Kraskouskas and Jupiter later told police.

The volunteers left the bar and parted ways at a nearby corner about midnight. Jupiter planned to walk Kraskouskas, a new volunteer, back to a training center in town. Phillips assured the two that she would be fine going home alone.”

The initial investigation focused on a former rock star/son of a diplomat who had lived in Germany, Israel, Denmark and the U.S., his cousin, and one other individual:

“A man named Ndoutoume Nzue Thierry, nicknamed “Rambo,” told police that Ondo and his cousin, Jean ClŽment Mintsa, forced Phillips into a car. Police identified Thierry as the drunk man who approached Phillips and her friends in the bar the night she died.

But Thierry abruptly changed his story after demonstrators converged on the Oyem jail where Ondo and Mintsa were being questioned. On Dec. 24, two days after implicating Ondo in Phillips’ murder, Thierry said Phillips fell on a rock while they had consensual sex. On Dec. 30, Thierry told police he attacked and stabbed her with a nail clipper. In February 1999, Thierry accused Ondo again.”

In July 2000, the three men charged were acquitted in the Phillips murder.  In 2003, Dayton Daily News did a lengthy piece on Phillips murder and her father’s pursuit for justice.

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