Ivory Coast envoy reports for duty

By ALEX CAMPBELL, MEDILL NEWS SERVICE, Written for UPI  |  Feb. 22, 2011 at 5:00 PM
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WASHINGTON, Feb. 22 (UPI) -- He has approval from the U.S. State Department, and an appointment with the White House to present his credentials. He also has the keys to the embassy and to two of his mission's cars.

But here's what Daouda Diabate won't have as he becomes Ivory Coast's ambassador to the United States: a fully established government back home.

The man who appointed him, Alassane Ouattara, is the U.N.-certified winner of November's presidential election. But Ouattara's opponent, incumbent Laurent Gbagbo, claims he won the election and has refused to step down. Ouattara has support of the international community; Gbagbo has support of the army. Both have taken oaths of office.

Hundreds of people have died in post-election violence. And African leaders who have been dispatched to solve the stalemate have not yet made progress.

As Diabate puts it, "We have no country, (and) we have two presidents."

The standoff has forced even the career diplomats to pick sides in a political fight, and though he has served in Washington once before under Gbagbo, Diabate chose Ouattara. "He won the election," he says.

The U.S. State Department agrees. Its officials speak of "President Ouattara" and "former President Gbagbo," and after some tense moments have managed to push Diabate's predecessor Charles Koffi -- who sided with Gbagbo -- out of office.

But Diabate's support for Ouattara poses some problems. It doesn't bode well for his paycheck, for one, since Gbagbo still has power of the purse.

It also means that when he moves into the gray brick building near upscale DuPont Circle to officially begin his ambassadorship Wednesday, some of his employees won't recognize him as their boss.

One need only look at the framed picture on Vice Consul Marie Singleton's office wall, above Bibles in both French and English, to know which government she serves. Gbagbo stands smiling, hands clasped together. "Président de la République de Côte d'Ivoire," the white cursive print reads.

Singleton is waiting for word from the Gbagbo regime on what to do next. She plans to go to work but will refuse to listen to any instruction from Diabate. "Everyone here should stand with the government no matter who they voted for," she said.

Her host country has different ideas.


A fight brews

Koffi was on vacation in Miami when he got a voicemail from a junior officer at the U.S. State Department. When he called back, he was told he had been recalled, and he had 30 days to leave the embassy. It was Dec. 30, one month after the election.

"I was a bit shocked," Koffi says. He was particularly offended that the note came from a junior officer. He conferred with the Gbagbo government, which advised him to stay on. He got an official State Department letter in January.

A spokesman confirmed that the State Department "took necessary steps" to remove Koffi from office but was unaware of the exact details.

Meanwhile, members of the American affiliate of Ouattara's political party, the RHDP, had gone to the embassy Dec. 30 to ask Koffi to leave -- and to remove the pictures of Gbagbo from the walls. But with Koffi out of town, the embassy was closed. "We think he heard about it, so he had a day off," RHDP in America Press Secretary Moses Diomande said.

RHDP members began hearing that Koffi would step down soon, Diomande says, adding, "The whole month of January we were expecting him to leave." They began preparing for a fight.

In mid-January Ouattara appointed Diabate, a lanky man with round glasses and a thin mustache who has a soft voice but speaks with his hands. He grew up in Bouake, the largest city in Ivory Coast's mostly Muslim north, where Ouattara claims much of his political base. He studied at the University of Abidjan before getting his diplomatic evaluation in Paris in the 1970s.

Diabate served in Washington for nearly four years under the Gbagbo regime until transferring to Brasilia in November 2007, leaving his friend Koffi in his place. His American connections -- plus his siding with Ouattara -- gave him a strong support base before he even landed in America Feb. 8.

The RHDP had a rally planned for him to take control of the embassy the day he arrived. But Diabate was too travel-weary for a showdown, so he got a welcoming party in the Wine Room of an Embassy Suites in northwest Washington instead.

About 75 Ivorians were there, many wearing suits, and a number with scarves celebrating their national soccer team "The Elephants" wrapped tightly around their necks. A group had made the trip from New York, including a taxi driver from the Bronx, and an electrician from Manhattan.

Diabate took his seat at the table next to the podium with his U.N. counterpart and several others. Along with a couple of cameras, a large red cardboard cutout hand with "BIENVENUE EXCELLENCE" faced him.

The crowd stood for the Ivorian national anthem.

Several people followed with speeches welcoming Diabate. The speeches were full of applause lines about Ouattara's victory over Gbagbo. Diabate told the approving crowd that the elections were the "most sophisticated … in Africa."

RHDP leaders were still preparing to help Diabate force his way into the embassy. After all, the Ouattara-appointed ambassador in Paris had to break in through locked doors to take over the French Embassy just two weeks earlier. They moved their rally to Wednesday -- the date of Diabate's appointment at the White House.

The United States was ready to help with the legal effort -- "if the ambassador is requesting assistance because of trespassers," for instance, a State Department official said. "But we wouldn't make that decision. It'd be up to President Ouattara's government."

But on Feb. 9, the day after the welcoming party, Koffi says he met with the State Department. He was told he had lost all his diplomatic privileges and was now considered a tourist.


Confrontation averted

On Feb.11, Diabate got a phone call at his hotel. The embassy's accountant and its defense attache told him that Koffi was surrendering his keys.

They brought him two sets: to the embassy and to a Lincoln limousine. The following Monday they brought keys to the mission's No. 1 car, a Mercedes. Koffi still has the key to a Toyota Sequoia and a Mercedes 4x4.

"I've been told that he's getting ready to go back to Cote d'Ivoire and I hope by that time he will leave the keys of the two other cars," Diabate says.

Koffi had decided there was no longer any reason to stay. "I was here on a purpose," he says, and if that purpose can no longer be carried out, "then what is my bidding here?"

Koffi says he has no personal problem with Diabate -- they simply come down on opposite sides of this debate. Diabate wasn't surprised at the detente. After all, he and Koffi have known each other since the mid-'70s, and Koffi was once his assistant at the Ministry for Foreign Affairs in Abidjan. The two had planned to meet in the United States, Diabate says, but Koffi canceled.

Koffi says he's heading back to Ivory Coast very soon.

"I'm a civil servant," he says. "I'll go back to be at the disposal of my government" -- the Gbagbo government.


A party and meeting

As his date with U.S. President Barack Obama approached, Diabate has been working from his laptop in a local hotel.

Back home, African leaders arrived Monday in Abidjan to meet with Ouattara and try to mediate the crisis. Two negotiators, including the president of Burkina Faso, pulled out of the meetings at the last moment, saying they had been threatened by the Young Patriots, a youth militia which supports Gbagbo.

Meanwhile, reports indicate that hundreds have died since the election began, and there have been reports of a crackdown on protesters this week. Bank closures have led to fears of an economic collapse.

Against that backdrop, Diabate says his job will be to persuade Americans to do as much as possible "to help us make democracy prevail," though he won't discuss the details.

First, though, he plans to set things straight in am embassy meeting when he arrives Wednesday.

"Those who think that I am not the right ambassador because I have not been appointed by the right president -- they have to just leave the embassy," he says, adding, "We cannot have two pictures of two presidents at the same embassy."

The RHDP, for its part, will still be having big a rally Wednesday, with party members coming from New York, Philadelphia, and Richmond, Va. The theme has changed a little, though. "It's going to be a big, big, big, big party," Diomande says.

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