Former US Assistant Secretary of State on African Affairs Ambassador Herman Cohen has written his second book: The Mind of the African Strongman: Conversations with Dictators, Statesmen and Father Figures. Cohen had earlier brokered the Eriterian-Ethiopian war in1991, the conflicts in Angola and Mozambique as well as the Liberian Crisis that gave birth to ECOMOG, while he was working in the State Department under Bush One.
This current update on his African odyssey is anchored on his encounter with well over 15 African Heads of State including Nigeria’s former military president General Ibrahim Babangida. Nduka Nwosu who had an earlier encounter with Cohen reports
When he was appointed Assistant Secretary of State between 1989 and 1993 under George Bush One, Ambassador Herman Cohen was the point man in the US State Department for African Policy. In that capacity, he met many African Heads of State including Nigeria’s military president General Ibrahim Babangida. Those meetings and conversations have produced a book: The Mind of the African Strongman: Conversations with Dictators, Statesmen and Father Figures.
Sometime last year in Washington DC when this writer had an encounter with Ambassador Cohen whose founding partnership-Cohen and Woods has deep interests in the Nigerian power sector, the 83 year old veteran of the US Civil Service, hinted he was going to launch this book last February. Coming a few months behind schedule, Cohen’s book, which by the way is not his first, will certainly not be the last, age notwithstanding, because at 83 Cohen enjoys the strength and regimen of a man who still has a place in the general scheme of things; and as long as his Muse keeps pouring an inky rain into his pen, his literary ship is yet to slip its mooring.
Surely this author’s seasonal monsoon rain of profiling issues of concern to the African continent is not over yet. As the saying goes among the people of Western Samoa, that from the direction of the wind, you can tell a story from the beginning, Cohen himself sets the stage for the great voyage. He reminds his audience his main interest was still deployed in research and writing while consulting and giving advice to some African governments as well as helping them navigate Washington, a mandate that had earned him the cognomen ‘Doyen of African Affairs.’ According to Cohen who during his active days advised well over 15 African heads of state, many ambassadors from these countries working in Washington need his kind of support to get things done but then, he laments, “I am fading out of business but I will still do consulting.”
Not to worry, Cohen will be here with us much longer than expected because with his beautiful and loving French wife Suzanne by his side, he is assured of his usual healthy gourmet. “Suzanne and I got married in 1957 while I was working in France for my first overseas posting. We remain happily married with two nice children Marc, 51 and Alain 47, huge successes in their business endeavour.
Indeed Cohen’s earlier book, ‘Intervening in Africa: Superpower Peacemaking in a Troubled Continent (Studies in Diplomacy)’ showcased on bookstands October 6, 2000 will be a good buy for these diplomats while the update exposes the evolving nature of democracy in Africa and how Africa’s present strongmen can free their minds from a corruption free administration for their countries to be unshackled from the chain of poverty, disease and endemic dependency from the developed world.
This recent update on the mind of Africa’s strongmen is already making waves among Cohen’s fellow veterans angling for space in the long column of commentaries. John Hirsch, Senior Advisor, International Peace Institute and former US Ambassador to Sierra Leone had this to say on the book: “Cohen’s cogently argued analysis of Africa’s first generation of post-colonial leaders will provide both experienced African hands and new readers useful insights into the major transitions underway in Africa and the continually evolving US role there.” Aside book writing on Africa, its problems and the way forward, Cohen, a former professor at John Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies makes regular appearances as an analyst on Al-Jazeera, the BBC, the CBC, PBS News Hour, NPR, Radio France Internationale, and the Voice of America discussing Africa and African affairs among other issues that hold his interest. On the on-going discourse
J. Peter Pham, Director, Atlantic Council Africa Center concludes that there are few who match Hank Cohen in terms of the length and breadth of his experience in and engagement with Africa, both within government and, subsequently, in the private sector. Pham no doubt has been following Cohen & Woods and its efforts to help US businesses exploit the opportunity of partnering with African governments and their businessmen. One such business deal that was opened, sealed and concluded by Cohen & Woods happens to be with Contour Global a US power company that provides Coca Cola Nigeria with its CHP. Cohen’s mind, he reveals, is powered by his belief in the future of Africa “and the leader of that future will be Nigeria.
” Which is why this review will be mostly focused on Africa’s leading economy, the mind of one of its very strongmen Ibrahim Babangida whom Cohen had so much interaction with especially during the Liberian crisis. Beyond this Cohen’s interest in the progress of the African continent was central in his being a co-founder of the very proactive corporate Council for Africa (CCA) which with the American Chamber of commerce jointly hosted President Muhammadu Buhari during his state visit to the US.
A founding member of the CCA, Cohen on the business side, says Contour Global and many American power companies are keen on partnering with Nigerian investors in the power sector with increased availability of Pham adds that even those who find themselves at disagreement with one or another of the author’s conclusions will nevertheless find the stories of his dealings with some of the most famous (and infamous) African leaders of the period fascinating and the insights of these historical figures which he recounts an invaluable resource.”
For Kenneth L. Brown, former U.S. Ambassador to Cote d’Ivoire, Ghana, and Republic of Congo and President, Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training, Cohen’s experience in Africa and access to a wide array of historic African leaders are unparalleled. “This unique book provides important lessons from the continent’s past and insights for its future.”
Edward Marks, retired Minister Counsellor of the US Foreign Service says Cohen’s book is evidence that individuals often do make a difference and that based upon his unrivaled experience as an American diplomat in Africa, the author’s collection of conversations with Africa’s Big Men “is invaluable to anyone interested in that continent and its tumultuous modern history.”¬¬ But Nigeria’s own Ahmadu Abubakar a lawyer and expert on sub-Saharan Africa development issues adds his voice: “Secretary Cohen is a master story teller who has made easier for Africans to form a broad historical perspective through his revealing tales about their rulers.”
Unlike the much expected book, which turned out to be nothing but a book, Cohen’s recall of his conversations with most of the men who have impoverished their African kinsmen and a few that showed them the light, has not failed to impress.
The author reminds his reader he knew many of these leaders personally because of his high position in the State Department; “I had private meetings with them. I was recounting what they said to me. I was trying to show the African approach to development and relations with the rest of the world. French speaking, I had Houphet Boigny of Cote de’Ivoire, Theodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo of Equitorial Guinea, and Leopold Sedar Senghor of Senegal; in the military I had Mobutu Sese Seko, Ibrahim Babangida of Nigeria and Siad Barre of Somalia. English speaking, I had Kaunda, Nelson Mandela of South Africa, Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe and de Klerk of South Africa.”
Ambassador John Campbell a well-known friend of Nigeria takes the lead and with tantalizing marketing skills he persuades the reader that Cohen “has written a fascinating and clear-eyed book…a great read – I did so in a single sitting because I could not put it down.” As Campbell puts it, Cohen’s interlocutors including more than 16 African heads of state, range from Leopold Senghor to Nelson Mandela and F.W. de Klerk.
Cohen, Campbell observes, seeks to address the question of why 50 years after independence, African countries continue to do relatively poorly. “His hypotheses are subtle and do not lend themselves to summary in a blog post. But, they involve leadership failures and the degree to which Africa “… to a great extent continues to be a prisoner of its cultural history. The book is a great read – I did so in a single sitting because I could not put it down.”
While Campbell’s favorite in the series of conversations Cohen had with “Africa’s big men,” is Albertina Sisulu, the wife of the great anti-apartheid crusader Walter Sisulu, the writer’s take remains Nigeria and her own Anglophone big men. Regarding his encounters between 1989 and 1993 with military President Ibrahim Babangida, Cohen said crisis prone Liberia was the issue and the Nigerian leader was the US point man in resolving the conflict through the DCOMOG. “He was very important to our policy because he was central to the creation of ECOMOG, which intervened in the war in Liberia with US assistance. Apart from that we did not deal with the internal affairs of the country; we stayed out of that and focused on the security of West Africa.
“We left office about the same time. I joined the World Bank and was for five years until 2000, responsible for the promotion of good governance in Africa, it was an intra-governmental organisation and I had them all over Africa. The members were all governments from Africa and donor countries. I had contact with him and General Olusegun Obasanjo who made frequent presence in my conferences on good governance.
As a military leader, Cohen says Babangida administered the country quite well, “which was unusual of a military leader. He also brought about a very good election also unusual of military leaders.” Nigerians would argue Cohen’s take on June 12 which was seen as rape on democracy when the election MKO Abiola was adjudged to have won was scuttled by Babangida and his military junta.
When reminded he would have a problem there, Cohen did not back down but added: “If it is because the election was cancelled, well, I never had a conversation with him to tell me why the election was cancelled but I pointed out that in April 1993 during my last month in office in Washington, I was visited by two Nigerian Generals whose names I cannot mention because they are still alive, who told me that the two candidates-Abiola and Tofa were unacceptable to the military because they were a couple of jokers. That is the record.”
So how was the election good when it was cancelled? Cohen is asked. His response: “It was good up to the point the votes were counted and one of them was the winner. A winner emerged. It was clear nobody said there was cheating or that the election was rigged.
“But the result was only leaked because the electoral authority was not allowed to declare a winner. At that point it was a bad election. My conclusion from what the generals told me was that the military wanted to stay in power even without General Babangida. That was the signal I got. I was frustrated at that point because I did not know what to do with the information. I assumed from then the military was planning not to allow the election to be implemented.”
Cohen’s robust discussion on corruption which General Buhari has promised to fight, back home, extends to many African leaders who have helped to impoverish their countries through a life style of avarice and squandermania. “I categorised the many forms of corruption that was executed or encouraged by these leaders. I said some foreign observers are fooled by different forms of corruption. A man like General Mobutu Sese Sekou of Congo was very open about his corruption. He was flamboyant on how he took people’s money to spend on himself and his family whereas in many countries it was subtle.
“President Kenneth Kaunda of Zambia for example, may not have been corrupt, he lived a simple life and people admired him for that. If you visited him, he poured the coffee for you whereas his party was very corrupt and sat on a lot of money made available to the party, the officers and members of the party. Zambia operated a one party system that tolerated no opposition. United National Independence Party (UNIP) of Zambia was very corrupt and the President never said anything about this. The same thing happened in Tanzania. Julius Nyerere was a great statesman, an intellectual admired throughout the world. He translated Julius Caesar to Swahili but his party the CCM was very corrupt and stole a lot of money. So corruption exists in Africa in varied styles.”
Specifically on Nigeria, Cohen observes the source of corruption has been the oil sector stressing this is typical of most oil producing countries like Angola and Equatorial Guinea. His conclusion: only a privatised oil sector will minimise the problem. Again this is a subject for another day because the oil sector is not the only source of corruption in Nigeria because state governors also loot and squander the collective patrimony of the people through many outlets such as security votes provided by the constitution, contract inflation and direct fingering of state treasuries running to trillions of naira. This is also true of ministers and directors of government parastatal in the system and many others who come in contact directly or indirectly with government business. According to Cohen, in the US there are very little government owned businesses. The oil and gas sector is private sector driven, noting that much of the drilling activities produced in the Gulf of Mexico, Texas, Louisiana, Oklahoma pay taxes to government. “They publish how much they produce and on the basis of those statistics backed with verifiable audit, they pay taxes and royalties to the state and federal governments.”
On Nigeria’s current rating and the investment climate Cohen had this to say: “The investment climate is good in the sense that investors can feel safe, that a contract can be honoured, which is the first priority for investors, that a contract with the Nigerian government or some private sector organisation will be honoured, which is not true of many African countries. Should that make it a good investment destination? The problem for many potential investors is the absence of infrastructure in many parts of Nigeria.
“For example if you have a factory in Lagos, this is good especially for quick imports and exports but as an investment destination, there is an absence of infrastructure development in many parts of the country. The transport system such as rails and roads is poor and the ports can be overcrowded; the power distribution is very poor. So infrastructure is a big problem for many investors in Nigeria. The good side is that the investment climate is good but infrastructure is a big impediment.”
“Power in particular is inhibiting investment. The national grid is very weak and needs to be upgraded; there is a shortage of gas while the distribution and transmission system needs to be upgraded. A national grid such as Nigeria’s calls for increased capacity in all directions; you have to bring power lines to communities that don’t have it and you have to bring the power to individual consumers and you have to arrange for people to pay for their consumption of power and you need to fix consumer meters.”
Cohen has always been a big supporter of President Barack Obama’s Power Africa project, which by his definition means there is a lot of money available for private investors to get loan guarantees or loan support for investments in the power sector in Africa. But, he adds, the host country must set the right environment where investors will be willing to invest. “For example Contour Gloval has many possible investments in the Gulf of Guinea area but it is waiting for gas to come. This problem persists in the entire West Coast-Cote D’Ivoire, Togo, Republic of Benin; Ghana should be getting a lot of gas now because of its oil but the question is how gas is transported to the land and brought to power plants; it should not be turned in to LNG and exported and sold abroad.”
The author notes Nigeria’s investment in the export of its liquefied natural gas was a mistake because its domestic needs currently affecting affecting the much expected increase in the needed megawatts to revolutionise the power sector, was lacking. “One of the biggest mistakes made by Nigeria was to allow the oil companies invest in LNG production and have it exported elsewhere when the gas is needed in Nigeria. Nigeria is exporting liquid financial gas all over the world when there is a big shortage of gas back home.
“This is a mistake made 50 years ago. Now I am not saying Nigeria should stop exporting LNG overseas; no, they can’t do that because the production of LNG is such a big investment but they should provide incentives for the oil companies by raising the price of gas to bring the gas to the land at a good price. This is a big investment with the set-up of pipelines. This will reduce or eliminate gas shortage,” Cohen insists.
The bigger picture, he says, is to be a player in the unfolding power sector and while waiting for gas to be made available. “We are waiting to supply power to the national grid and other companies and once the gas issue is settled, we will come into the scene. Cohen looks into the future with positive projections for the country: “Nigeria has a brilliant future because there is so much entrepreneurial spirit among the people. In Nigeria successful entrepreneurs are considered as heroes unlike what obtains elsewhere where political leaders see you as a threat. In Nigeria no one is afraid of government, people want to invest and make profit.
“Government’s does not see investors as threats. The problem is how to set up the right conditions for increased investor participation for Nigerian investors, not foreign investors, providing infrastructure, power, gas, transportation et al. “In other countries people are afraid to start new businesses because of harassment for non-payment of taxes. Nigeria does not have that. Business people are respected and appreciated but they have the problems of infrastructure to drive their businesses no matter where they are.”