Book Review: America’s Strange Bedfellows in Africa

Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe (left) and former Zambian president Kenneth Kaunda meet ahead of Zambia's annual agriculture and commercial show. Lusaka, Zambia, August 3, 2012. (Joseph Mwenda/AFP/Getty Images)

Recent events related to elections in Africa have revealed much about the trajectory of ongoing change on the continent. The unprecedented peaceful transfer of power to Muhammadu Buhari is a possible sign of democratic progress in Nigeria. Meanwhile, the unrest around Pierre Nkurunziza’s contentious pursuit of a third term in Burundi points to the tenuous nature of that country’s post-civil war stability. The delicacy of Africa’s political transitions, and the impacts of the vicissitudes of its leaders are laid bare in a new book from former United States assistant secretary of state Herman (Hank) Cohen, which focuses on the first generation of the continent’s post-colonial leaders.

The Mind of the African Strongman: Conversations with Dictators, Statesmen and Father Figures provides a fascinating account of conversations with 16 of these leaders. It also traces the evolution of US foreign policy in Africa over the half century since African states achieved independence. The book features a trenchant assessment of these leaders’ perspectives in moving their newly independent states away from their former colonial masters.

Cohen’s subjects were committed to the one-party state and Marxist socialism, hallmarks of the immediate post-World War II era in Africa. They drew their ideological inspiration, in Cohen’s view, from the French Socialist and British Labour parties. With the exception of South Africa’s Nelson Mandela, the leaders were authoritarians concerned mainly with maintaining their hold on power and the centralization of all decisions and resources under state control, rather than with ensuring the welfare and advancement of their people.

Cohen describes the legacy of the first generation leaders as largely negative. His subheadings tell the story. They comprise The British Commonwealth: Missed Opportunities for Greatness (Zambia, Zimbabwe, and Kenya); The Congolese: Oh Belgium! What have You Wrought? (Zaire, now the Democratic Republic of Congo); and The Military Chiefs: Soldiers Do Not Do Democracy (Libya, Nigeria, and Somalia).

All these regimes were marked by corruption, supported by single party bureaucracies which drained their treasuries, engaged in mass nationalizations, and filled their prisons with large numbers of dissidents and opponents. Cohen draws six generalizations about this generation of African leaders:

  • A “cultural block,” or lack of awareness, led them to see the masses as “children” needing parental guidance
  • Cultural and ethnic inhibitors prevented them from pursuing inclusionary politics, repeatedly giving preference and resources to their own ethnic group over others
  • Attending conferences and participating in mediation of other regional conflicts was preferable to dealing with their own conflicts and internal inequalities
  • Protecting the leader’s image and security was paramount, but the quest for absolute security did not instill a sense of security
  • Those who led the freedom struggles were not necessarily the best leaders to lead and govern these newly independent nations—he cites Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe, Zambia’s Kenneth Kaunda, Senegal’s Leopold Senghor, and the DRC’s Laurent-Désire Kabila as examples
  • On the more positive side, the leaders reinforced or developed the concept of national identity, for example, Congolese nationhood

Cohen praises the African Union’s more recent efforts to promote good governance, peacemaking, and conflict resolution, noting the organization’s readiness to suspend those that come to power through coups, as many of the first generation of leaders had done. But he also notes that the AU, as with its predecessor the Organization of African Unity, continues to ignore Africa’s “dirty little secret,” namely illegitimate surrogate wars waged by states to destabilize their neighbors. This includes the recent roles of Rwanda and Uganda in the DRC; Burkina Faso’s efforts to destabilize Laurent Gbabgo’s government in Cote d’Ivoire; and covert Zambian and South African support for Jonas Savimbi’s Unita movement in the 1990s to subvert the government of Angola.

Cohen’s book is rich in anecdotal examples of vanity and delusion. Most bizarre is his phone conversation with Samuel Doe, Liberia’s beleaguered president at the height of the country’s civil war. As his rivals were closing in on him the US offered to provide Doe transport and asylum in Togo; Doe first demanded a full scholarship to Oxford University and to have his entire stock of Coca-Cola flown out along with his family and luggage. Cohen told him the Coca-Cola transport was approved but the US could not guarantee admission to Oxford. Shortly after this conversation Doe (who himself had come to power through a brutal coup in 1980) was murdered by one of his rivals, Prince Yomie Johnson, bringing an end to one of the strangest relationships in US-African foreign policy.

What are we to make of all this? Cohen indirectly critiques American foreign policy in this timeframe as entirely focused on Cold War geopolitical competition with the Soviet Union for the loyalty and support of these African leaders, most notably in the DRC (then Zaire), the Horn of Africa countries, and Angola. These were strange bedfellows indeed. What brings them together in this volume is that they were mostly nationalists and opportunists, acting out of self-interest, and anti-Soviet, if not necessarily pro-American. They were ready to protect US economic interests or to serve as conduits for covert arms transfers, as with Savimbi’s Unita.

It was only starting in 1990 with the end of the Cold War, as Cohen makes clear, that US policy in Africa moved to the promotion of democracy, the conduct of free and fair elections, and the rethinking of the “Washington consensus” for economic development. US policy has changed significantly over the past 25 years, going beyond these efforts at conflict resolution, to dealing more realistically with the challenges of supporting improved governance, sustainable health programs, and long-term economic development. Today’s generation of Africans has moved beyond the Cold War, but the legacy of those years lingers on, as leaders such as Mugabe, and possibly Nkurunziza, continue to cling to their dreams of unchallenged leadership and dominance.

Together with his earlier book Intervening in Africa, Superpower Peacekeeping in a Troubled Continent (2000), Cohen’s cogently argued analysis of Africa’s first generation of post-colonial leaders will provide both experienced Africa hands and new readers useful insights into the major transitions underway in Africa and the continually evolving US role there.