- The Mind of the African Strongman: Conversations with Dictators, Statesmen, and Father Figures by Herman J. Cohen
The “Big Men” of African politics are a fascinating subject. After all, few leaders are so powerful and uncontested in their political decision-making, and few have failed so miserably. More than a half-century after the majority of African nations gained their independence, there is still too little sustainable economic development on the continent. Political conflicts continue to be explosive, corruption and clientelism are rife, and the rule of the law is overwhelmingly deficient. These outcomes stand in stark contrast to the [End Page 263] profound optimism that was so widespread in many freshly decolonized nations. In the early days of independence, the political class in most countries believed that strong governments were needed to meet the tremendous challenges ahead. What followed was a concentration of political authority and the emergence of leaders facing few effective constraints in their handling of domestic affairs. How these strongmen reason, how they perceive themselves and their fellow citizens, and how they explain or justify their decisions are intriguing questions for anybody interested in African politics.
The Mind of the African Strongman analyzes the background, performance, and impact of several African heads of state. Cohen limits his exposition to leaders he personally encountered during a long Foreign Service career. This somewhat narrows the scope of the book, as influential presidents, such as Julius Nyerere of Tanzania, are not included. Each chapter opens with a brief historical sketch, providing the relevant context. Cohen then describes his dealings with African leaders, which range from entertaining trivia to eyewitness accounts of top-level decision-making. The chapters close with a personal assessment of the individuals’ legacies. Individual chapters are grouped into thematic clusters. The first group focuses on the Francophone heads of state: Léopold Senghor (Senegal), Félix Houphouët-Boigny (Côte d’Ivoire), and Albert-Bernard (later “Omar”) Bongo (Gabon). The chapters in the second group consider presidents of former British colonies, specifically Daniel Arap-Moi (Kenya), Kenneth Kaunda (Zambia), and Robert Mugabe (Zimbabwe). Two separate chapters are dedicated to the Congolese rulers Joseph-Desiré Mobutu and Laurent-Desiré Kabila. Each chapter of the fourth group addresses heads of state who emerged from the military, namely Ibrahim Babangida (Nigeria), Muammar Gaddafi (Libya), Mohamed Siad Barre (Somalia), and Jonas Savimbi (Angola). The fifth group consists of a single chapter on Liberia and the two leaders that contributed significantly to the disastrous developments there, Samuel Doe and Charles Taylor. Group six, also a single chapter, is dedicated to the two South African statesmen who irreversibly transformed their country and made it an exception on the continent, F. W. de Klerk and Nelson Mandela. Cohen concludes his book with a summary of the insights drawn from his experiences with and personal observations of Africa’s strongmen.
Cohen makes great effort to place the often atrocious transgressions of the individuals covered in their proper historical and social context. Nonetheless, controversial topics, such as Mobutu’s disdain for his fellow citizens, Bongo’s kleptocracy, or Gaddafi’s delusional grandiosity, are addressed overtly. Moreover, he illuminates the realities of realpolitik, especially against the background of the Cold War. With disarming honesty, Cohen admits that certain issues, such as political repression and human rights violations, were not terribly important to U.S. foreign policy before the George H. W. Bush administration.
Herman Cohen had a long and accomplished diplomatic career, with appointment to several African nations and culminating in his service as [End Page 264] Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs in the first Bush administration. Since his retirement from the U.S. Foreign Service, Cohen has continued to be involved with African affairs as a private consultant. Moreover, he is an engaging writer, and these accounts of his experiences with various African leaders are both informative and highly readable.
Overall, The Mind of the African Strongman would be fascinating for Africanists, historians of U.S...