Confusion in Washington: Who Runs the Liberian Embassy?
By Abdoulaye W. Dukulé
December 10, 2003
At a recent donors preparatory conference on Liberia in Washington, DC, after the State Department recognized the presence of the Liberian Chargé d’Affairs at the conference table, another voice rose in the back of the room and said: "My name is Abdullah K. Dunbar and I am the new Chargé d’Affairs and Minister Plenipotentiary at the Embassy of Liberia and I represent the government of Liberia." The whole room, filled with ministers and ambassadors from the United States government, European Union, Japan, China among others turned to look and then there was a moment of embarrassment. The question on every face in the room seemed to be: "Whom are we dealing with?"
With the involvement of the United States in the current peace process, starting with the stand taken by President George Bush that led to Taylor leaving the country, one would expected that the Liberian Embassy in Washington would be one of the most important institutions and one that would be running smoothly. This embassy is the one to work with the US government, the many public and private institutions heading for Liberia in this reconstruction period. It also deals with more than 300,000 Liberians in this country.
The embassy is now stranded in the same confusion that affected many ministries and public institutions over the years whenever there was a change of government. In 1980, people were thrown out of their offices, sometimes after decades of service to the nation. During the years of factional warfare, ministries turned into musical chairs and people were forcing themselves into offices. The same is still going on in Monrovia in many quarters, according to reports.
However, the case of the embassy is very surprising and the fact that it takes place in Washington, DC, is even more disheartening. There is one Chairman and there is one Minister of Foreign Affairs, so where could the confusion come from?
The row is between Abdullah K. Dunbar and Aaron Kollie, both of whom have worked for years at the Liberian embassy in Washington. Dunbar came to Washington during the 1990s under IGNU and Kollie was appointed in 1998 by the Taylor administration. It is the first diplomatic assignment for both.
According to Aaron Kollie, the government recalled Dunbar back in May-June 2003. Kollie said Dunbar refused to be transferred from the consular section to the much higher position of political officer, to become the second to him Kollie after many ranking members of the mission left. "I was surprised that anyone would refuse a promotion. Dunbar has been here for years, stamping passports and doing clerical work for which we have a staff. I thought moving to a political position was something any diplomat would jump at." Dunbar didn’t see it that way. He said Kollie was trying to get him fired. He says: "There was a conspiracy to get rid of me because of my opposition to the Taylor government. When they couldn’t throw me out, they decided to put me in a small office with no job to do."
An embassy staff member who spoke to us said: "this whole thing is about money. There have been accusations back and forth. But we know that the consular section is the only money making area of the embassy and one would understand that nobody would give it up, since government does not pay…" The staff member, who want remain unanimous, added that tensions are rising at the embassy. "On top of not having been paid for years, this is the last thing we need."
After Dunbar’s recall was confirmed by the US State Department and he had lost his diplomatic accreditation, he returned to Monrovia in October 2003. He came back to Washington, DC, went to the embassy and called a staff meeting. He then produced a letter written by the new Minister of Foreign Affairs, Mr. Nimley, appointing him as Chargé d’Affairs at the Embassy. He also had in his possession a letter written by the same Minister recalling Kollie. During the meeting, Kollie said he had never received any such communication from the government, nor has anyone at the Executive Mansion or at Foreign Ministry asked him to turn over the Embassy to anyone.
Dunbar says he is in control at the embassy. Kollie says he is in control. During a visit on the premises, we saw Dunbar bringing a new person whom he put at the reception desk to answer the phone. We also saw him receive the embassy mail at the door and insisting that all mail is forwarded to him. He is receiving calls on his cell phone and when people from outside call for the Ambassador, it depends 0n who gets to answer first. If it is Dunbar’s receptionist, he takes the call and if someone else picks up the phone, Kollie gets it. Dunbar has also opened a side door at the embassy for his personal visitors.
Kollie, who is still using the small office next the office of the ambassador, said he would leave as soon as the government notifies him that he is to return to Monrovia. "I have been asked to stay on and I am going to stay on until I am officially recalled." Dunbar, on his part, says: "Minister Nimley who appointed me, asked me to report to work and that the matter would be solved in a matter of days."
We spoke to several people both at the Executive Mansion and at the Foreign Ministry and all said the same thing: "The Chairman and the Minister of Foreign Affairs are handling the case. They are meeting Friday [Friday December 5, 2003] to resolve matter."
Meanwhile the confusion at the embassy has reached the US State Department where a request of accreditation for Dunbar was written and sent from the Embassy through parallel channels, violating protocol. The confusion also reached Riggs Bank. Officials at the bank said they have decided to freeze all accounts of the Liberian Embassy as off today [Tuesday, December 9, 2003] until they receive clarification from the government. Contractors on both embassy properties at Fulton Street and Colorado have also stopped work.
Given the pivotal role US government and agencies are playing in the recovery process of Liberia, this type of confusion does not help any. A Liberian who recently visited the embassy and to whom we spoke on the steps of the mission said: "This is so shameful. This is what Liberia has been brought down to. Both these young men need to go home and learn to work hard. With all the great diplomats and educated people in our country, you mean we can’t find one good person to run our most important diplomatic mission in the world?"