November 3, 1999
Political Woman Goes From Ivory Tower to Street
Fishermen Feel Xenophobia in 'Pure Ivoirian' Pride (Aug. 8, 1999)
Join a Discussion on Africa in Transition
By NORIMITSU ONISHI
BIDJAN, Ivory Coast -- The often-told story about Henriette
Diabate went like this: The woman with the impeccably proper
upbringing once lost an election because instead of making sure
that the ballots were being counted properly after a long day she
daintily went home to take a bath.
"It's a legend," Diabate said recently, describing the story
as a crude attempt to discredit the rarity of rarities: a female
African political leader. "But the legend survives."
Maybe not for much longer. As a political crisis has deepened in
this West African nation in the last two weeks, the 64-year-old
Diabate -- mother of this country's main opposition party, mother of
five children, grandmother to six -- has emerged as a central
Along with the head of her party overseas, Diabate led followers
through the streets of Abidjan on a spontaneous march after the
police hurled tear gas canisters. And since last Wednesday, after
the government accused her party's supporters of marching
illegally, as well as rioting and burning public buses, she has
been jailed with other party leaders.
Diabate, a historian and a former minister of culture for the
party in power, awaits a court hearing on Thursday and faces months
in prison. Her party says that the government rescinded the permit
for the march at the last minute and the police incited the
"This woman, I respect her for who she is and what she has
done," said Kone Ahmed, 28, as he walked in a recent march for the
Rally of the Republicans, whose secretary general is Diabate.
"Here's someone who has everything in life: a husband, children,
grandchildren, money, diplomas, honors. But she's here with us, in
the middle of all of us who have nothing and who are fighting to
"If she were at home giving us orders, I wouldn't follow
them," Ahmed said. "But she's here with us."
During the sit-in that followed the march, Diabate, described by
many as a spoiled woman who would never be able to take to the
streets, sat on the hot asphalt under a scorching sun, her legs
crossed. "I don't feel the ground," she said defiantly. "I don't
even know whether it's hot, cold, hard or soft. Why be afraid of
the sun when the decisions taken by the ruling party are hotter
than the sun's rays? Better fight them now."
The election for president is still a year away. But the battle
pitting the Democratic Party of the Ivory Coast of President Henri
Konan Bedie against the Rally of the Republicans, led by Alassane
D. Ouattara, who was until recently a deputy director at the
International Monetary Fund in Washington, has begun with
The fairness of the election, in a country that has long been
the most stable and richest in French-speaking sub-Saharan Africa,
will be watched closely in a region with little success in
democracy. It will also amount to something of a test of the
Clinton administration's frequently stated commitment to democracy
in Africa, particularly since the government of Bedie has the
backing of the French government, according to diplomats based
On Friday, the U.S. State Department asked for the release of
the opposition leaders and warned that the United States might have
to reassess its relations with the Ivory Coast.
In the months leading up to Ouattara's scheduled return here,
the government drummed up its campaign of ivoirite, a vague concept
of national identity by which longtime Ivoirians were to be
distinguished from supposed newcomers. The message dovetailed with
the government's long-held assertion that Ouattara's father was
from Burkina Faso (something Ouattara denies) and that he is thus
ineligible to run for president.
Diabate controlled the opposition party until Ouattara, a prime
minister here in the early 1990s, came back in July. But Ouattara
has been in Paris for the last month as the government-controlled
courts charged him with forging his Ivoirian identity cards and
invalidated his citizenship papers. And so with Ouattara unable to
return without facing arrest, the reins of the main opposition
party have fallen back into the hands of Diabate.
Things were not expected to turn out this way. For many
skeptics, Diabate had been chosen as her party's head during
Ouattara's absence because it would be easier for a woman to step
down upon his return.
"I thought she was a puppet," said Guy Liali, an editor at
L'Argument, a magazine for another opposition party. He added: "I
thought she was a great lady. But precisely because of that, I
thought she couldn't lift a finger to give her supporters orders.
She couldn't order her supporters to take to the streets, because
she's not a woman from the streets."
The daughter of a successful businessman, Ms. Diabate lived all
over the Ivory Coast as a child. She went to college in Senegal and
then to France, where she earned a doctorate in history at the
Sorbonne. After her return to the Ivory Coast, she taught at the
University of Cocody in Abidjan, the country's main university.
In the 1960s, just after the country's independence, most of her
colleagues were French, and she was the only Ivoirian woman on the
faculty. She specialized in the Ivory Coast, including the history
of an incipient women's movement.
"I have to admit that many people were asking what possessed me
to abandon my children to do field research and teach," Diabate
said during a recent interview at her villa. "It seemed silly and
Nevertheless, in a culture where girls are often denied
schooling, married off in their adolescence and men are permitted
multiple wives, Diabate became a model for a younger generation of
Tannella Boni, a professor of philosophy at the University of
Cocody, described Diabate as an older sister to the still
relatively small number of women teachers. Diabate had now become
an even greater model in public life, Boni said.
"She's a symbol for all of us regardless of our political
affiliation," Boni said. "We see her there, a woman of
conviction. All of us are watching her and hoping that she'll win,
that she'll hold on and succeed."
Diabate came into politics through Ouattara, who was a protege
of her second husband, Lamine Diabate, a banker. When Ouattara was
prime minister in the early 1990s, he chose Diabate as minister of
But after Ouattara had a falling out with Bedie and formed his
own organization, Diabate also left the party that has ruled the
Ivory Coast since its independence.
Half a decade later, especially after recent events, Diabate may
finally dispel all the stories about being a soft woman more
interested in soaking herself in a bathtub than in the dirty world
"It's inspiring to see a woman at the head of a party," she
said. "But as long as a woman is a model, we have not attained our
goal. To say that a woman is a model means there aren't that