WASHINGTON — A high-ranking State Department official asked Sen. Jim Inhofe to intervene in the aftermath of the disputed election in the Ivory Coast late last year, suggesting that Inhofe ask the country's president if he would leave the country and accept a job at Boston University, Inhofe said.
Inhofe, R-Tulsa, said in an interview that he never acted on the request and that he told Donald Yamamoto, a principal deputy assistant secretary at the State Department, that he wouldn't approach then-President Laurent Gbagbo about it because he wasn't assuming Gbagbo had lost the election.
Salon.com first reported last week that the State Department had approached Inhofe as it was searching for intermediaries to Gbagbo shortly after the November election. In an interview, Inhofe provided details of the State Department contact with him.
The State Department declined to respond to questions from The Oklahoman about Yamamoto's request to Inhofe.
The United States, the United Nations and the African Union have taken the position that Gbagbo was defeated in the November election by opposition leader Alassane Ouattara. Gbagbo's refusal to concede has led to widespread fighting in the country, and hundreds of thousands of people have fled their homes.
The U.N. Security Council voted last week to impose sanctions on Gbagbo, and President Barack Obama urged him to step aside, saying that if he didn't, there would be “more violence, more innocent civilians being wounded and killed and more diplomatic and economic isolation.”
Fighters loyal to Ouattara on Sunday prepared for a battle to oust Gbagbo. Ouattara's camp reported that the vast majority of the military has defected to his side, leaving only a small contingent of fighters to defend Gbagbo.
Inhofe's African connections
Inhofe last week sent a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton telling her that a new election should be held in the country because he has found evidence of fraud.
“I am convinced that only through a new election will the people of Cote d'Ivoire end the increasing bloodshed, stop another civil war and ensure free and fair elections,” he wrote.
Inhofe is a frequent visitor to the Ivory Coast and other African nations. He said in his letter to Clinton that he has been to the Ivory Coast nine times, most recently in June. Senate travel records show Inhofe and three of his Senate aides visited the country in that period.
“I am probably the most knowledgeable person about Africa in the U.S. Senate,” Inhofe wrote to Clinton.
Inhofe sometimes has framed his interest in Africa in religious terms, once calling it “a Jesus thing,” and he told The Oklahoman two years ago that he first went to the continent at the urging of Doug Coe, the longtime organizer of the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington.
Gbagbo and his wife are evangelical Christians. Ouattara is Muslim.
Inhofe knows Gbagbo and his wife, which is why Yamamoto reached out to him. Inhofe said Yamamoto told him that there would be a teaching position for Gbagbo at Boston University and a job for his wife.
Boston University hosts the African Presidential Archive and Research Center, which, according to its website, “provides residential opportunities for democratically elected former African heads of state.” The center is headed by Charles Stith, the former U.S. ambassador to Tanzania.
Responding to an inquiry from The Oklahoman, Stith said Friday that the residency program at the center is for African heads of state and government that leave office as a result of the democratic process.
“Had Gbagbo left office after the election (even under protest regarding the process and outcome) he could have been considered a prospective candidate for our program,'' Stith said. “Given that he is likely to be carried out of office on a rail or spit, the issue of a residency opportunity at Boston University or anywhere is moot, at this point.”
Inhofe said the call from Yamamoto had been confidential but that he decided to speak about it because, he said, the State Department had obviously leaked the fact that he had been contacted.
He said he and Yamamoto — the former U.S. ambassador to Ethiopia — are friends.
But, he said, “I don't think it was appropriate for him to ask me to do that.”
Inhofe last week submitted to Clinton what he considered evidence of fraud — a vote tally sheet from five towns in a northern district of the country where the numbers attributed to each town were inflated by nearly 95,000 votes in the total.
If the same thing happened in other northern districts that backed Ouattara, Inhofe said, Gbagbo was cheated out of an election.
The Associated Press reported earlier this year that there were mass killings of Muslims in the northern part of the country after the election. Moreover, the AP reported that it had obtained a 2004 U.N. report about death squads targeting Gbagbo opponents.
Stith, the former ambassador, said Friday that Gbagbo “will be remembered in infamy as one of Africa's long list of strongmen that traded away their countries' future to try to secure their own.”
Asked about the allegations of brutality by Gbagbo, Inhofe said, “It's a different culture in Africa. Half of the presidents in Africa have been accused of being not the best people.”