November 3, 1999


Political Woman Goes From Ivory Tower to Street

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    ABIDJAN, 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 figure.

    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 Her party says that the government rescinded the permit for the march at the last minute and the police incited the violence.

    "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 get something.

    "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 unexpected fierceness.

    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 here.

    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 incomprehensible."

    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 women.

    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 culture.

    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 of politics.

    "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 many."


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