But here’s what Daouda Diabaté won’t have as he becomes Ivory Coast’s ambassador to the United States on Wednesday: 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 have died in post-election violence, and African leaders dispatched this week to solve the stalemate have not yet made progress.
As Diabaté puts it, “We have no country, (and) we have two presidents.”
The stand-off has forced even the career diplomats to pick sides in a political fight, and though he has served in Washington once before under Gbagbo, Diabaté chose Ouattara. “He won the election,” he says.
The State Department agrees. Its officials speak of “President Ouattara” and “former President Gbagbo,” and after some tense moments have managed to push Diabaté’s predecessor Charles Koffi — who sided with Gbagbo — out of office.
But Diabaté’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 grey 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 régime on what to do next. She plans to go to work but will refuse to listen to any instruction from Diabaté. “Everyone here should stand with the government no matter who they voted for,” she says.
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 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 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 on 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 Moussa Moses Diomandé says.
RHDP members began hearing that Koffi would step down soon, Diomandé says. “The whole month of January we were expecting him to leave.” They began preparing for a fight.
In mid-January Ouattara appointed Diabaté, a lanky man with round glasses and a thin mustache who has a soft voice but speaks with his hands. He grew up in Bouaké, the largest city in Côte d’Ivoire’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.
Diabaté served in Washington for nearly four years under the Gbagbo régime until transferring to Brasilia in November 2007, leaving 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 Diabaté 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 “Les Éléphants” 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.
Diabaté 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 Diabaté which were full of applause lines about Ouattara’s victory over Gbagbo. Diabaté told the approving crowd that the elections were the “most sophisticated … in Africa.”
RHDP leaders were still preparing to help Diabaté 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 this Wednesday — the date of Diabaté’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.
On Feb.11, Diabaté got a phone call at his hotel. The embassy’s accountant and its defense attaché 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 number one car, a Mercedes. Koffi still has the keys to a Toyota Sequoia and a Mercedes 4×4.
“I’ve been told that he’s getting ready to go back to Côte d’Ivoire and I hope by that time he will leave the keys of the two other cars,” Diabaté says.
Koffi says there is 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 Diabaté — they simply come down on opposite sides of this debate. Diabaté wasn’t surprised at the détente. After all, he and Koffi have known each other since the mid-‘70s, and Koffi was once his assistant at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Abidjan. The two had even planned to meet here, Diabaté says, but Koffi canceled.
Koffi says he’s heading back to Côte d’Ivoire 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 President Barack Obama approaches, Diabaté has been working from his laptop in a local hotel.
Back home, African leaders arrived on 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 for a country which produces 40 percent of the world’s cocoa.
Against that backdrop, Diabaté 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 a 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 a big rally on 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,” Diomandé says.
- This story was co-published with United Press International.