“The Mind of the African Strongman”

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The Mind of the African Strongman by Herman Cohen
We will do well, if Cohen’s voice contributes to shaping US foreign policy toward Africa in the second decade of the twenty-first century.

By Dr. Samuel Mahaffy,

How do we cope with the human rights atrocities committed by our best friends?” “Such is the dilemma of US policy in Africa” (p. 51). Herman Cohen brings forward a refreshingly honest account of US foreign policy in Africa. This is a surprisingly candid account of Cohen’s encounter with ‘post-colonial’ African leaders over his 38 years in the US Foreign Service.

US engagement with African nations has been a mixture of manipulation to support our self-interests and outright ignorance of African cultures and contexts. Cohen’s work affirms that the US has long had an affinity for friendship with strongman dictators who will do our bidding on the African continent. “Why does the CIA destabilize countries all over the world?” The question asked by Gaddafi, the late leader of Libya, receives an astonishingly honest–if somewhat facetious–answer from Cohen: “Leader, we are a superpower. That is what we do” (p. 120).

Cohen’s work dispels any myth that US involvement on the African continent has prioritized the aspirations of African people for freedom and self-determination. The US has willingly sided with sometimes brutal African leaders enriching themselves, when it perceives that to be in its economic and political self-interest. Cohen’s work tells us as much about the mind of Western power brokers on the African continent as it does about the “mind of the African strongman.”

Cohen shares significant wisdom that could shape a more just involvement of Western countries with the nations of Africa. “The absence of diplomatic relations guarantees zero communications” (p. 121). Cohen’s work anticipates the recent discovery of the US that isolating countries with which we do not disagree may be an unproductive, if not dangerous strategy. US engagement with Iran and with Cuba are signposts of hope. Consistent with his premise that isolationism does not work, Cohen has courageously raised a voice that engagement with the Country of Eritrea is appropriate and necessary arguing that it is time to bring Eritrea in from the cold.

It is perhaps a credit to Eritrea, that this small East African country is barely mentioned in Cohen’s description of African dictators that have enriched themselves at the expense of their people. Eritrea is a clear exception to the rule. Eritrea has focused on education, health care and local economic development rather than enrichment of a few. The small and efficient hydro dam projects commended in Cohen’s work, are a successful marker of how Eritrea is feeding its people in a drought-stricken region of the African continent.

Cohen’s work raises what should be compelling questions. Will the US prioritize siding with corporations willing to exploit Africa for its coveted resources? Or will the US choose to stand with the just aspirations of African people for economic and political self-determination? Is corruption and authoritarian rule inevitable in the African model of the constitutional one-party state? Is the Western multiparty democratic system “incompatible with African culture?” (p. 54). What right do we have to impose Western style democracy on African people?

The US maintains a giant military footprint across the African continent. It controls and manipulates African military forces for its own perceived self-interests. In our relationships with African nations, the US has cared more about its own interests than those of the African people. It is easy to be cynical in regard to US involvement in Africa.

Cohen’s work brings forward a glimmer of hope for a more positive and just engagement with African nations. Cohen is an experienced elder statesman. We would do well to listen to Cohen’s voice in regard to Africa and African affairs. There is no shortcut to the personal relations that must be developed if we are to have any credible involvement with the African people. Our actions speak louder than our words in African affairs. Will our African involvement be about exploitation of resources or empowerment of African people?

Cohen’s work concludes with a hopeful perspective on African leadership. “…there are promising signs among some of the younger leaders who understand technology, who listen to the people, and who wake up in the morning determined to do good. The international community needs to identify these promising leaders and concentrate their development assistance on helping them succeed” (p. 186).

We are a long way from Western nations having “relationships of equals” (p. 39) with African nations and peoples. In regard to Africa, we need to speak less and listen more. Cohen’s work is a valuable resource for learning about the culture, context and aspirations of African people. We will do well, if Cohen’s voice contributes to shaping US foreign policy toward Africa in the second decade of the twenty-first century.

** “The Mind of the African Strongman: Conversations with Dictators, Statesmen, and Father Figures” (2015) is written by Herman J. Cohen and published by New Academia Publishing in Washington, DC. Available from Amazon or from New Academia Publishing.

Dr. Samuel Mahaffy was born and raised in Eritrea, East Africa. He writes frequently about Africa on his personal website at www.samuelmahaffy.com. The opinions in this review are his own.