Harry C. Blaney III says that The Mind of the African Strongman reveals the multiplicity of African political thought and influence.
For the United States, Africa has always been one of the most difficult continents to fully understand and to carry out diplomacy with any lasting effect. It is also the place where we have needed to be engaged with our best people and with effective assistance programs that reached the general population and not squandered or wasted especially on wars and civil strife.
This book The Mind of the African Strongman: Conversations with Dictators, Statesmen, and Father Figures is filled with person-to-person meetings and dialogues of the key leaders of Africa over decades and provides Ambassador Cohen’s wise observations of their views, weaknesses, and strengths. In the process the reader gets an insight into the difficulties of achieving prosperity for their people as well as the many barriers to development and real democracy.
Not spared in this book are the many conflicts between African states as well as internally that caused so much suffering. For example, the civil war between Liberia’s two strongmen Charles Taylor and Samuel Doe brought great carnage and deaths to the people of that nation. As Cohen noted the end product was that “Liberia was totally destroyed.”
Ambassador Cohen knows better than just anyone of his generation and beyond about the challenges and pitfalls of dealing with the wide variety of conditions, forces and wide range of leaders of African nations especially in the post-colonial era. In this book, he sets forth as good a look at the leaders that shaped or misshaped that continent in this key period.
The book’s chapters are like a short history of African leadership from a personal perspective of a US diplomat who was engaged intensively with the leaders and the problems of that period. So we gain an insight into the strengths, weaknesses and difficulties covering such countries as Senegal, Cote d’Ivoire, Gabon, Kenya, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Congo, Zaire, Nigeria, Libya, Somalia, Angola, Liberia, and South Africa. In each case, these countries’ first leaders are portrayed with incisive insight and their inner personalities are uncovered.
Africa has a long history of upheavals, conflicts and abject poverty. The hope was that progress could be achieved through independence. That promise however was moved forward in some cases and sadly in others was held back by a multiplicity of problems, poor leadership and corruption.
In Cohen’s final chapter he says, “The African leaders portrayed in this volume were typical of their generation. Their outlooks were somewhat contradictory. They rejected colonial-era institutions, yet they adopted some colonial-era socioeconomic theories.” He adds: “The newly independent African nations of the early 1960s rejected Western multiparty democracy and all the trappings of open societies. Relying on the African tradition of consensus building to settle disputes, the early leaders adopted the “African one-party state.”
On economics, Cohen notes that many leaders have an economic outlook of “African socialism” adopted from the UK and French socialist parties. The results were often corruption, which was often in the form of diversion of resources away from priority areas like health and education and toward maintaining the one-party state authoritarian rule and their constituencies. The consequence was “a vicious cycle….that caused most African countries to suffer from negative growth for over two decades.” He notes that the 1980s external efforts to reform and help African countries “succeeded over a decade in reversing economic decline in most of the countries.”
He argues that a new generation of leaders demanding more freedom often resulted in less authoritarian rule and the rise of independent media, opposition parties and some private enterprise. Looking at 2015, Cohen notes that while Africa is making progress on political and economic fronts, he holds that in some countries the process is far from full democracy.
In this last chapter Cohen makes an argument about the need for democracy as a means of stability, growth, and fairness. The best leaders are those that face the next election and do not fear so much for “day-to-day security.”
Cohen addresses the use by early (and now recent) leaders of “illegitimate surrogate wars”. Here I think is one of the key points of criticism of the African political and security landscape and one of the causes of great poverty and deprivation. He makes the point that while the African Union will expel any government that comes to power through a military coup, the AU “continues to ignore the illegitimate surrogate wars that are so devastating to life and property.”
Cohen ends with the hope for the development of good leaders that understand the needs of their people, are modern in their outlook on technology, listen to their people and wake up in the morning determined to do good. He points to South Africa as a possible model for other African countries.
With regards to US policy, he notes that America is taking a positive attitude towards developments in Africa. But he seems to think we have taken too light a hand and avoided “blunt talk” letting the World Bank and IMF do the hard work. He ends by noting that “President Obama appears more inclined than his predecessors towards “tough love” with respect to Africa.” He hopes he will talk more openly about corruption and human rights abuses. He argues he can get away with a harder line and urge a move towards good governance. He worries also about growing unemployed youth becoming “explosive.” Cohen says that there are grounds for some optimism in Africa “in the second decade of the twenty-first century.”
This book is for those interested in the recent history of Africa, its many problems, the role and impact of its early leadership and its inheritance to the continent. It will make for exciting and insightful reading and a lot of thought about the landscape of the contemporary African continent.
The Mind of the African Strongman: Conversations with Dictators, Statesmen, and Father Figures (New Academia Publishing, Washington DC, 2015, paperback.
Harry C. Blaney III is a senior fellow at the Center for International Policy in Washington DC.
A version of this post was first published on the Rethinking National Security blog.
The views expressed in this post are those of the author and in no way reflect those of the Africa at LSE blog or the London School of Economics and Political Science.