By Robert Gribbin
Following is a piece that I wrote which was published in the September 2012 edition of the Foreign Service Journal. I spent most of my diplomatic career in Africa, including two tours in the Central African Republic - first as a junior officer (1874-76) and later as ambassador (1992-95). I wrote an adventure novel set in the CAR entitled State of Decay - An Oubangui Chronicle. It is available from on line bookstores and the publisher www.infinitypress.com.
In 1993 while I was ambassador in the Central African Republic, the citizens participated in the nation’s first (and so far only) free and fair election. Four of the fifteen candidates, including the incumbent, Andre Kolingba, led the pack.
The French and German ambassadors, the EU delegate, the UN resident representative and I formed a donor committee that coordinated our collective financial input and strove to preach the virtues of democracy. The United States brought only a little money to the table, but our influence as a bulwark of democracy was impressive nonetheless.
The campaign grew hot with slings and arrows from all camps. Much of the politicking broke out along tribal lines, and rallies, broadsides and sound trucks sought to win over voters.
At one time or another each candidate sat on my couch and asked for America’s blessing. I applauded their patriotism, willingness to engage and reiterated the U.S. commitment to an open process, but promised nothing concrete. Nonetheless, when each spoke to the press upon exiting the embassy, he implied a warm endorsement.
The campaign was a festive experience, not in the least because the citizenry finally awoke to the fact that they had a say. Only late in the process did the president’s inner circle realize that he was not very popular and would probably lose. So they began to plot disruptions.As was my habit in this season, I took breakfast on the terrace of the residence one day during the last phase of electioneering. The morning was fresh, bright and clear, but held the promise of another hot and humid day.
Looking up into the large sweet smelling frangi pangi tree that overhung part of the terrace, I spied a big, long black snake intertwined among the blossoms. I grabbed my croissant and coffee and quickly retreated behind the sliding glass door into the house.
When I summoned the house staff, they chattered excitedly and went to inform the gardeners. I had to go to the chancery so left the issue in their hands.
I arrived home for lunch to find that the staff, including the day guards, had laid out on the terrace for my inspection an eight foot long black mamba – one of Africa’s most aggressive and deadliest snakes. I heard recitations of the battle with the beast and the bravado of the victors.
I congratulated them profusely for their bravery and prowess in keeping us safe. Indeed, no one could have rested easy unless the snake was dealt with in this fashion.
By late afternoon a story was circulating widely in the city to the effect that President Kolingba, angry with the U.S. ambassador’s advocacy of free elections and seeing his own impending exit, had used his black magic to send a mamba to kill the ambassador. The snake had snuck into the garden that morning and had laid in wait to strike.
However, the ambassador’s magic proved to be stronger. He had sensed the evil presence and had defeated the snake. Thus, as a consequence, the elections would go forward as planned and President Kolingba would lose.One week later, that’s exactly what happened.