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Ambassador profile: Angola's Josefina Diakite
The Washington Diplomat / December 2004

By Larry Luxner

Known mainly for a long-running civil war that killed more than a million people until hostilities finally died down three years ago, petroleum-rich Angola now wants to make a name for itself as the Saudi Arabia of Africa.

With proven oil reserves of 5.4 billion barrels, the Portuguese-speaking country has become the darling of Texas oil executives. Yet it still must overcome a negative global reputation, concedes Angola's ambassador in Washington, Josefina Perpétua Pitra Diakite.

"That's mainly because the first decision of the Angolan government upon achieving indepedence in 1975 was to be a socialist country," she said during a lengthy interview at her official residence in Potomac, Maryland. "That decision cost us a lot in terms of our international image."

As ambassador, Diakite oversees a staff of 14 at the Angolan Embassy, located at 2108 Sixteenth St., NW. The country also maintains consulates in New York and Houston to serve business executives as well as the estimated 8,000 Angolans living in the United States — many of them former members of the Natonal Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA) and other opposition parties welcomed here during the Cold War.

Diakite said that after independence, the Portuguese civil servants who kept Angola running left abruptly, forcing the new country to quickly build its infrastructure and public administration from scratch.

"At the same time, our country was invaded from the north by the former Mobutu regime in Zaire, and from the south by the South African apartheid regime. So you can imagine how difficult it was for the government to defend our sovereignty. Thank God we had the support of Cuba."

She said Fidel Castro sent thousands of soldiers to Angola to defend the country from its attackers, while Cuban doctors and teachers arrived to improve the quality of life for millions of impoverished Angolans.

The United States, meanwhile, was vilified for its support of Jonas Savimbi and his UNITA rebel group, which sought to overthrow the Marxists and install a pro-Washington government in Luanda. The Reagan administration, she said, was responsible for the entry of Stinger missiles in Angola which killed many people.

"Lots of people like myself had Cuban teachers at the university, and a lot of Angolans went to Cuba to study," she said. "Cuba has been at our side during the most difficult times. When other countries were fighting against us, Cubans were dying with us."

All told, at least a million people — maybe more — died in Angola's civil war, though no one knows for sure. At one point in the early 1990s, the war was killing more than 1,000 Angolans every day, yet not a single American casualty has ever been recorded.

The Luena Memorandum of April 2002 brought a formal end to the fighting, and UNITA became an opposition political party within the government headed by President José Eduardo dos Santos and his ruling Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA).

Today, despite the bitter Reagan years, Luanda's relations with Washington have improved dramatically.

Dos Santos, who has ruled Angola since 1979, met with Clinton at the White House in December 1995, shortly after the establishment of diplomatic relations. Four years later, the Clinton administration inaugurated the U.S.-Angola Bilateral Consultative Commission to serve as a forum for political, humanitarian and economic issues.

"It took a long time, but the fact is that our bilateral and formal relations are only 11 years old," Diakite told the Diplomat. "For a long time, the U.S. government refused to recognize the government of Angola because it was socialist. With this current [Bush] administration, we've done quite a lot, but there's still a long way to go."

In fiscal 2005, the U.S. Agency for International Development plans to allocate $12.5 million in development assistance and child survival. That's down from total USAID disbursements of $27.2 million in fiscal 2004 and $146.2 million in fiscal 2003.

Nevertheless, according to an agency fact sheet, "USAID has established four coalitions composed of 14 civil-society organizations that are combining efforts to address children's right to education, land tenure, housing and the rights of individuals living with HIV/AIDS. USAID is assisting in the development of a new constitution and has increased government-constituency contacts through town meetings. Our program supports civic education, adult literacy and a boarding school and community resource center for abandoned girls."

In 2000, two-way trade between the United States and Angola came to nearly $3.8 billion, a 42% increase from 1999. Angola is now the third-largest sub-Saharan trading partner of the United States after Nigeria and South Africa. In 2003, oil imports alone totaled $4.14 billion, while diamonds and other mineral imports were a distant second, at $20.6 million. Major U.S. exports to Angola are machinery equipment related to the oil and gas sector (nearly 60% of all U.S. exports) and food and live animals (20%).

Even though Angola wasn't among the 35 sub-Saharan African countries to qualify for the first round of trade benefits under the Africa Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), it was declared eligible for AGOA in January 2004. This act of Congress offers liberal access to the U.S. market for any country or region with which the United States does not have a free-trade agreement.

Even though Angola wasn't among the 35 sub-Saharan African countries to qualify for the first round of trade benefits under the Africa Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), it was declared eligible for AGOA in January 2004. This act of Congress offers liberal access to the U.S. market for any country or region with which the United States does not have a free-trade agreement.

"Angola is an excellent agricultural hub and has a very fertile soil. By taking advantage of the non-oil opportunities of AGOA, Angola can relaunch and develop its agro-industrial potential. Coffee, cotton and cassava, to name just a few products, can be produced, processed and exported to the U.S. market duty-free under AGOA," she said. "AGOA can play a key role in ensuring sustainable social and economic development in Angola, which will in turn contribute to reducing poverty and alleviating human suffering."

Diakite is one of only 13 female ambassadors in Washington (interestingly, seven of the 13 are from African countries). She speaks Portuguese, English, French, Spanish and three native Angolan languages: Kimbundu, Umbundu and Fiote.

Born in the Angolan city of Lobito, Diakite grew up there and in Benguela, later moving to Luanda for her education. Upon graduating with a law degree from Luanda's Agostinho Neto University in 1985, she became head of the contract coordinating unit at the Angolan Secretariat of State for Cooperation.

After that, she rose through the ranks of the Foreign Ministry, serving as director of the Western European department (1989-92), director of the U.S. and European department (1992-93) and finally ambassador to Sweden, Denmark, Norway and Finland (1993-2000).

The diplomat is an enthusiastic advocate of children and women's welfare issues, and in 2003 received the Dag Hammarskjold Security and Peace Award.

Diakite became ambassador to the United States on June 20, 2001, though she says the appointment came as a surprise to her.

"I never expected to be ambassador," she said, recalling that when the Foreign Ministry first offered her the job she turned it down, but was eventually persuaded to accept. She and her husband Mamadou, an architect, have three sons aged 27, 10 and 2.

Eight months after arriving in Washington, Diakite got a lucky break of sorts.

On Feb. 24, 2002, Savimbi — the 67-year-old rebel who had led UNITA for more than 30 years — was gunned down during fighting with government troops in Lucusse, a remote town in eastern Angola's Moxico province. That took the steam out of UNITA's fight, paving the way for negotiations that would eventually bring the war to an end.

"Unfortunately," she said, "the death of Jonas Savimbi did succeed to bring peace to the country. As soon as he was killed, the president was indulgent enough to offer UNITA's leadership the possibility of having peace talks."

The only place where violent conflict persists is Cabinda, the non-contiguous, 2,800-square-mile enclave squeezed between Congo-Brazzaville and the Democratic Republic of Congo that produces 80% of Angola's oil output. Some of the 250,000 people living in Cabinda are demanding independence, but that's "out of the question," said Diakite.

"Cabinda is part of Angolan territory, and the majority of people there realized that the [UNITA] movement was using them." Asked if the people of Cabinda really want independence, the ambassador said: "I don't think so. Most of them are just looking to have a quiet, decent life."

There is, of course, a danger that Angola's vast oil and diamond wealth could become a future source of violent conflict and instability if the government does nothing to address issues like poverty, corruption and self-enrichment. To that end, Angola's priority is to draft a constitution, hold elections and help the country's 13 million inhabitants make up for all those years lost to fighting.

The first step, she said, is to hold a donor conference to expedite national reconstruction. But that hasn't happened quite yet.

"Our president has been working tirelessly to see this happen," she said. "Unfortunately, the international community thinks Angola is a wealthy country."

With a per-capita income of only $450 a year, Angola is of course not wealthy at all.

In the UN's Human Development Index 2004, it ranked 166th out of 177 countries surveyed, right behind Malawi and Zambia, and just ahead of Chad. But thanks to its oil reserves, Angola's long-term outlook is better than that of many of its African neighbors.

Diakite says that since Angola's civil war was fueled by foreign interests, those same interests are now morally obligated to help the country stand on its own feet.

"If there was money to feed the war, there has to be money to support national reconstruction," she said. "Every country in a post-conflict situation deserves substantial support from the international community to enable it to take off, no matter how rich or wealthy it is. For us, it's difficult to understand why we have to meet a double standard, while others like Afghanistan, Iraq, Kosovo or Liberia didn't have to show any kind of improvement in democracy or good governance."

More importantly, donor countries are reluctant to hold a conference to raise money for Angola in the absence of a solid agreement with the International Monetary Fund.

In April 2000, Angola signed an accord with the IMF to initiate a nine-month Staff Monitored Program, the precursor to Poverty Reduction and Growth Facility (PRGF), which can pave the way for increased lending and possible debt restructuring. Negotiations with the IMF are continuing, despite the fact that Angola has missed its initial economic and monetary targets.

Among other things, the IMF is demanding that Angola reduce its inflation rate from the current 32% to 15% (it had been as high as 173%), control its public expenditures, improve its tax-collection system, adopt fiscal transparency, slash external debt and privatize state-owned entities like Angola Telecom, the national phone monopoly.

The government aims to draft a new constitution by May 2005, with elections to take place probably in September or October 2006. But even that's a contentious issue among Angola's seven political parties. The ruling MPLA has 129 of the 233 seats in the Angolan parliament, while UNITA, as the largest party in the opposition, holds 67 seats.

"The revision of the constitution has been a concern of our government, and a precondition for holding of the next elections," Diakite said. "It's important that the next elections will be a real step forward, and not a step backward. The government has created a commission to draft the constitution, but the oppostiion parties have tried to sabotage this commission."

Yet another thorny subject is that of the Angolan flag.

In an effort to move the country away from its recent Marxist past, a parliamentary commission has come up with a new flag design, which replaces the current hammer-and-sickle against a red and black background.

The new design incorporates red, white and blue horizontal stripes, with the middle red stripe containing a 15-ray yellowish sun comprising three irregular concentric circles inspired by the ancestral Tchitundo-Hulu rock paintings of the country`s southwestern Namibe province.

It's colorful and pretty, but Diakite isn't convinced.

"I feel very sad that some people want to change our flag. Under that flag, Angola got its strength and pride," she said. "Our flag reflects history, and you can't undo history."

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