A review of The Mind of the African Strongman Conversations with Dictators, Statesmen, and Father Figures, by Herman J. Cohen, New Academia Publishers, Washington, D.C. 2015.
This is an interesting and chatty book. It is what it purports to be: a series of anecdotes recounting contacts and conversations with sixteen African leaders over a period of forty years. Ambassador Cohen spent many of those years in Africa as a diplomat on the scene and more as the Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs at the Department of State in Washington. Even in his post diplomatic career, Ambassador Cohen saw old contacts and made new ones.
The author puts each of the strongmen in context. He provides background on the country in question and information on the individual chief of state. The result is a penetrating look at the foibles, personal concerns and motivations of African leaders. Their individual personalities come across vibrantly. Few, Mandela and DeKlerk excepted, were altruistic. Most - Moi, Barre, Mugabe, Houphet - were crafty politicians who understood their home context exceedingly well, but who were often adrift in the international arena. Others - Doe, Taylor, Kabila - were just thugs who managed to grab power, but were able to do little with it. Cohen’s unenviable task throughout was to convince and cajole these men to do something positive; many times just for their own people, but always also for the United States. Cold war concerns frequently provided the point of departure for a conversation, but internal politics, democracy and human rights, economic development and conflict resolution figured on Cohen’s agendas.