The Foreign Service Journal, September 2012

I n 1993, while I was ambassador to the Central African Republic, the citizenry participated in the na- tion’s first (and so far only) free and fair election. Four of the 15 presidential candidates, including the incumbent, Andre Kolingba, led the pack. The French and German ambassa- dors, the European Union delegate, the United Nations resident represen- tative and I formed a donor committee that coordinated our collective finan- cial 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 bul- wark 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 all sought to win over voters. At one time or another, each candi- date sat on my couch and asked for America’s blessing. I applauded their patriotism and willingness to engage, and reiterated the U.S. commitment to an open process, but promised nothing concrete. Nonetheless, when each spoke to the press on exiting the em- bassy, he implied that he had received a warm endorsement. The campaign was a festive experi- ence, not least because the citizenry fi- nally 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 prob- ably lose. So they began to plot dis- ruptions. As was my habit in this season, I took breakfast on the terrace of the res- idence 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 over- hung part of the terrace, I spied a big, long, black snake intertwined among the blossoms. I grabbed my croissant and coffee and quickly retreated be- hind 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 I 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 inspec- tion 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 until the snake had been dealt with in this fashion. By late afternoon a story was circu- lating widely in the city to the effect that President Kolingba, angry with the U.S. ambassador for advocating free elections and foreseeing his own im- pending exit, had used his black magic to send a mamba to kill the ambassa- dor. The snake had snuck into the gar- den that morning and 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 Pres. Kolingba would lose. One week later, that’s exactly what happened. Robert E. Gribbin spent many years in East and Central Africa, first as a Peace Corps Volunteer and then as a diplomat, including two tours in the Central African Republic — first as a junior officer (1974-1976) and later as ambassador (1992-1995). He is the author of a novel set in the CAR: State of Decay — An Oubangui Chronicle (, 2001). R EFLECTIONS Serpentine Diplomacy B Y R OBERT G RIBBIN At one time or another, each candidate sat on my couch and asked for America’s blessing. 74 F O R E I G N S E R V I C E J O U R N A L / S E P T E M B E R 2 0 1 2