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by Harry C. Blaney III

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 out 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” (New Academia Publishing, 2015, paperback), is filed 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 of the many difficulties of achieving prosperity for the people and also the many barriers to development and real democracy.

Not speared in this book is the many conflicts between African states and internal conflicts that caused so much suffering like the civil war between Liberia’s two strongmen Charles Taylor and Samuel Doe, which brought great carnage and deaths to the people of that nation. And as Cohen noted “Liberia was totally destroyed.”

Ambassador Cohen knows better than just about anyone of his generation and beyond the challenges and pitfalls of dealing with the wide variety of conditions, forces and wide range of leaders of African nations especially in their post-colonial era. In this book he sets forth as good a look at the leaders that shaped or misshaped that contentment in this key post-colonial period.

The books chapters are like a short history of African leadership from a personal perspective of a U.S. diplomat who was engaged intensively with these leaders and the problems of that period. So we gain an insight on the strengths and weaknesses and difficulties covering such countries as Senegal, Cote d’Ivoire, Gabon, Kenya, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Congo, Zaire, Nigeria, Libya, Somalia, Angola Liberia, and not least South Africa. In each case and in their own chapters these countries’ first leaders are portrayed with incisive insight and their inner personalities are given some light.

Africa has a long history of upheavals, conflicts and abject poverty, the hope was that progress could be made by independence. That promise however was moved forward in some cases and sadly in others was held back by a multiplicity of problems and poor leadership and corruption.

In Cohen’s summing up 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. He notes they also used the African “tradition of consensus building, but one party sates.

On the economic side Cohen notes that many leaders had an economic outlook of “African socialism” taken from the UK and French socialist parties they knew. The result were often corruption, 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 in 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 with a new generation of leaders, there was more demand for freedom and often it resulted in less authoritarian rule along with the rise of independent media, and rise of some opposition parties and some private enterprise. Looking at 2015 Cohen notes that Africa was making progress on political and economic fronts. But he holds that in some countries the process was far from full democracy.

In this last chapter Cohen makes an argument for the need for democracy as a means of stability, growth and fairness and the best leaders are those that face the next election and thus do not fear so much for “day-to-day security.”

Cohen addresses also 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 the African Union will expel any government that comes to power through a military coup, but the AF “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 and 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 modal for other African countries.

American policy he notes 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 words. He ends by writing that “President Obama appears more inclined that his predecessors toward “tough love” with respect to Africa.” He hopes President Obama 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.” Amb. Cohen says there are grounds for some optimism in Africa “in the second decade of the twenty-first century.

This book, for those interested in the recent history of Africa and its many problems and the role and impact of it’s early leadership and what inheritance they gave to Africa, will make for exciting and insightful reading and a lot of thought about the landscape of Africa today.

We welcome your comments!
The Mind of the African Strongman: Conversations with Dictators, Statesmen, and Father Figures” (New Academia Publishing, Washington DC, 2015, paperback.  available from Amazon

Washington DC, 2015, paperback. We welcome your comments!


U.S. military personnel boarding KC-130J Super Hercules in order to deploy to West Africa (Photo: Department of Defense)
U.S. military personnel boarding KC-130J Super Hercules in order to deploy to West Africa (Photo: Department of Defense)

By Erik Ruiz

In a video conference on Tuesday, October 14, with leaders from 21 countries, President Obama stressed that the international community was not doing enough to combat the Ebola crisis in West Africa.

“As I’ve said before, and I’m going to keep on repeating until we start seeing more progress, the world as a whole is not doing enough…. There are a number of countries that have capacity that have not yet stepped up.” – President Obama

That same day, the World Health Organization warned that we could start seeing as many as 10,000 new cases of Ebola per month. Although WHO’s official tally puts the death toll at 4,447 out of 8,914 reported cases, Dr. Bruce Aylward, assistant director-general of WHO, suggested that there may be more deaths that have not been officially recorded.  

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Crisis Points that Bring Suffering, Conflict, and Instability: Sudan and South Sudan/Darfur and Much of East Africa

Today we woke with news that Sudan is preparing to invade South Sudan over an oil field dispute that threatens an all out war that can only add to the hundreds of thousands of civilian deaths that have already been part of the long history of the brutal Omar Hassan al-Bashir regime. This recent development is another indication of the continued instability and precariousness of the entire region of East Africa from Egypt through Zimbabwe. 

The existing actions were covered in a small box in the New York Times on page A11, and the Washington Post gave it a story at the bottom of page A8 of its April 19th edition. In some ways this is emblematic of the degree of dull normality with which we are treating cataclysmic events that impact millions of people in a far away but strategic region.  

Bashir’s statement that it would “liberate” South Sudan from its ruling party is simply a declaration of war that makes a mockery again of all the agreements that have been made in the past regarding both South Sudan and the Darfur region. 

The current press agency reporting coming from the region indicates that the Darfur rebels and the South Sudan governmental forces are acting in some possible joint effort. The specific news from reports is that the rebels from Sudan’s Darfur region on Thursday seized two Sudanese military positions north of the Heglig oil field occupied by South Sudanese forces.

While the immediate cause is the seizing of an oil producing and contested Heglig region, it could also be an effort by Bashir to destroy the independence of South Sudan and negate entirely the earlier 2005 peace settlement and restore the status quo ante. 

The UN is calling for South Sudan to pull out of Heglig to defuse the situation. Sudan has traditionally had the backing of Russia and China. In some ways the assessment on the part of Bashir may be that with conflict in Syria still active and unsettled this is a good time to act unilaterally given the inaction by the international community. In the end, a better solution would have been some kind of independent international mediation. 

It is time for the international community and the U.S. to take a hard look at existing and emerging “crisis points” and to create a more robust preventive diplomatic and peacekeeping/peacemaking capability. It is also time to rethink our humanitarian and development assistance structure. A long time ago I pointed to a growing “high risk” world of instability and danger to global security. Our international institutions and structures clearly have not evolved sufficiently to meet these challenges. 

The global economic crisis has also sapped the will to act effectively to allocate necessary attention and resources by nations and international organizations despite repeated calls for stopping the carnage. Unless we rethink again with re-imagining of security for the now interconnected world we live in, we are going to see more and more South Sudans, Syrias, Somalias, Darfurs, and worse.

By Harry C. Blaney III.

Next Steps for Libya’s Transitional National Council and for the Libyan People’s Future?

We are getting closer to seeing the testing moment of whether or not the Transitional National Council (TNC) will be able to work together as a stable interim government rather than a rather fractious fighting rebel force. They have gained recognition by a wide group of nations including now the U.S. and the Arab League, which sets the stage for external help.

The proof will be if the TNC’s efforts successfully create a better future for its people and provide the basis for promoting reconciliation and democracy as well as create democracy and prosperity for that nation.  Certainly, they have the advantage of some major resources in their oil producing capacity (about 3% of world production) and their now “embargoed” massive Libyan assets which can soon be made available for useful investment in the country.  They also have a fairly high literacy rate unlike what we see in Afghanistan.

Equally, we will be seeing if the NATO powers and the Arab allies will be able to provide the vital necessary assistance in a timely way and in forms that immediately impact the lives, well being, and especially employment–particularly of the youths of that nation, who are now so armed and engaged that they present both an element of instability and a promising source of talent to rebuild their now fairly devastated nation.

Libya needs an economic plan not dissimilar to what Obama would have liked in America if the Republicans had not vetoed it and thus prolonged our sad economic decline we are now seeing. But clearly, for Libya, a real stimulus is just what the doctor ordered to achieve growth and economic renewal.

We made some major mistakes in Iraq and in Afghanistan regarding getting their economies and security systems established and working.  Let’s not make the same mistake while the Arab world is watching and its implications loom large for the future of the “Arab Spring” and, thus, the evolution of the Arab world towards modernity and democracy.

There are plenty of “shovel ready” projects in rebuilding the damage that six months of civil war have created. (Just like there are in America with our own deteriorated infrastructure where the government can employ millions for massive long term national benefits.)  In Libya this can, in the end, all be paid for by oil money.  (In the US it can be paid for by our own increased productivity and revenue plus savings from less imported oil and fewer unemployment checks and destitute families.)  But it requires the full mobilization of both national resources and help from outside experts, companies, and international organizations with expertise in rebuilding countries that have experienced major damage. It means massive educational and training programs that lead to real jobs. Such an effort is likely to make building national unity easier when all have a stake in success.  The coming six months of victory and rebuilding will be even more important than the six months of civil war!

Comments invited!

By Harry C. Blaney III.

Libya in Transition: What Does the Future Hold?

The swift move of the rebels into Tripoli is almost certainly the start of the end of Gaddafi and his regime. As I noted both in an earlier letter to the Financial Times and in past blogs, this is the time for the international community to move swiftly and massively with assistance to help build stability, provide just governance, basic services, and above all security for the Libyan population.  The victory was in significant part due to a coordinated series of 7,459 total missions flown by NATO and its allies according to press reports this morning.

Libya has the resources to make life good for its population. In the short run, the largest challenge for the rebel National Transitional Council is to assert authority and provide stability and unity. But this can’t be done without outside help including from the U.S. What we needed to do is to prepare for this ending months ago, since it was inevitable that this day would come. A resumption in oil sales, providing food supplies, and training of both military and civilian officials is necessary so that an effective transition can be quickly developed. The United Nations can and should help in this process. Jobs need to be created for the unemployed with funds released from the Gaddafi regime’s funds abroad.

A unified government is required that reaches out to all groups, asks for outside assistance, and puts in place the mechanism to effectively see that aid reaches the people that need it, not just the rich and well-connected. But NATO and allied countries also need to give help, visible to all, in place at once. Planes should be landing now with aid. This is not just the end of the end, but the start of a new fragile beginning that needs our immediate help as we did in the days after World War II.

A good sign was the presence of Assistant Secretary of State Jeffrey D. Feltman in Benghazi, who is probably trying to help coordinate aid in the transition and push for broad participation and assist stability and security of the entire population. It looks like at least America has some immediate plans to provide humanitarian help. But will it be sufficient over the long-term given the GOP’s demanded cuts to our diplomacy budget?  

One of the ironic and hypocritical elements of the Arab Spring upheavals is that the conservative Republicans that cried out for the U.S. to bring our ground armed forces into the fray have shown their true colors. They criticized President Obama for his caution and moderation and are now cutting drastically the funding of our preventive diplomacy capability (via State and USAID). This means that we may not be able to turn this immediate military victory into a long-term success and have an influence on the course of events in this region. One wonders: just how serious were Republican critics in their so-called support for Middle East democracy and American leadership in dealing with the risks and opportunities of Middle East change?

We welcome your comments!

By Harry C. Blaney III.

A Region on Fire: The “Arab Spring” Moves to “Arab Summer” and Heats UP

The Arab Spring has morphed into an “Arab Summer” of heated uncertainty and brutal conflict and soon will transition into an ‘Arab Fall.’  The “Arab Fall” will likely be the key time when agreed transition actions, conflicts, and elections will come to a critical stage and outcomes a bit more known. I suspect that the fall’s events will be major in determining to some extent the true direction of the Arab upheavals. But the summer has demonstrated the risks and uncertainties of the transformation.  Thus, we have little time to really help with this critical transition.

We will look at some of the current changes we are seeing, but the question of what will become of all the unrest and upheavals and the still fragile accomplishments of the “Arab Spring” remains. The question especially is what should America’s response, and that of our friends and allies, be?

First is the cradle of the movement in Tunisia where, for various reasons, there is more hope than despair but a still fragile and changing situation. Here democratic forces are still responding.  We are likely to see party formations and preparation for elections over the coming months, and the response of the current transition government will be key.  Here we need to find a multilateral framework which can help promote civic society, democracy, transparency and, conduct election monitoring for the Tunisians. They are “the center” of the North African “upheaval sandwich” with Egypt on one side and Libya on the other—all unstable and continuing to go through dangerous change.

Second is the most important event of the “Arab Spring,” namely the “revolution” in Egypt.  Here things do not look so good, as the existing government seems of mixed inclination with actions against change for a real democracy and small, incomplete steps towards a functioning democratic government.  The military council, which rules Egypt, has put Mubarak on trial but not made transparent, nor deeply involved the opposition groups in, the decisions on the path to democracy.

Third is the continued conflict and revolution in Libya, which is still an ongoing hindrance to progress, but likely has an “end game” which has yet to play out. Here there have been both positive and negative trends. The positive is the international community’s wide recognition of the rebel council.  On the negative side, rebel supporters killed the general, who had been leading the campaign against Gaddafi.  Inter-clan rivalries seem to be a barrier to a unified and effective transition system of national governance.  Once money starts to flow to the Transition Council and supplies flow in, the rebels should gain a better advantage over the Gaddafi forces.  Nevertheless, the Council has yet to fully prove it can be a unified transition and honest governing body.

The problem again is the lack of a comprehensive follow through by the West and friendly, rich Arab countries to help the transitional leaders organize a truly national government, prepare a nation which never had democracy and is divided by clan and ethnic interests, and gain the capability of meeting the hopes and aspirations of its newly freed citizens.

Lastly, the other “upheavals” will have an impact on the region, and there are still lessons to be learned from the chaotic situation in several of these countries—the most dangerous and unpredictable being Syria. The government seems determined to kill its restive citizens while the West seems equally determined not to intervene due to what might be call “war” fatigue and lack of resources.

The UN has just condemned the killings but without taking any meaningful action.  Clearly, Syria is destined to be a problem for the whole region, a killing field, and a murderous dictatorship unless some concerted action is taken.  Without getting rid of Assad and his supporters, Syria will remain a festering source of regional instability.  The new troubles in Lebanon, due to the UN calling for the arrest of Hezbollah killers of the former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, highlight the potential of added turmoil in Syria’s bordering countries.

Other countries in the region remain either in revolt, turmoil, or restive states. These include Yemen, Lebanon, Bahrain, Lebanon, etc. In short, much of the region is undergoing major changes that pose both extraordinary opportunities and equal risks.  Doing nothing or very little is likely the worse option, yet the mood and economy of the West is corrosive to bold action.

What about American policies in the region to further democracy and to help economic growth, which is necessary to achieve stability and support democratic rule over the long term?  Obama’s stated polices seem right, but the issue at hand is that Congress is so dysfunctional that Obama might not be given, in the present atmosphere, enough support and resources to make enough of a contribution to the region to ensure its stability and prosperity.  The political and economic situations confronting the U.S. and our European allies make reaching out and giving support to these positive forces questionable. That means that others with more malevolent intent could seize the day.  In that case, we will have lost an historic opportunity to help shape the region’s aspiring democracy.

Under these circumstances, what can and should be done to create democracy, protect human rights, and ensure a measure of economic justice?  In an earlier letter on May 2nd to the Financial Times, I urged a new multilateral effort to establish an international body, perhaps under the UN, to coordinate and to fund a regional development and democracy building program and to utilize the funding capacity of the World Bank, IMF, UNDP, and the Arab League to raise funds for the effort rather than rely on strained, traditional bilateral or insufficient limited multilateral assistance.  A multi-year “full court press’ is clearly necessary here. A regional fund of at least $100 billion to start is needed with a timeline of help over a ten year period.

The second initiative is one of concerted diplomacy to prevent conflict and hands-on assistance provided by NGOs and established international organizations to provide on the ground training, educational assistance, and jobs focused on the youth of the region, along with civil development support.  Not least, private sector investment is crucial and may need to be subsidized or guaranteed in some form.

We welcome our readers’ thoughts and comments as the events continue to unfold!

By Harry C. Blaney III.

Transcript of Chairman of the JCS Adm. Mike Mullen’s Speech at the Wilson Center

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen gave the inaugural lecture for the Wilson Center’s Lee Hamilton Lecture Series on Civil Defense and Democracy on May 25. In his wide-ranging address, Adm. Mullen presented some of his observations and comments on the current and future challenges to the United States.  Adm. Mullen predicts that as we move into the 21st century we will see a reduction of U.S. military presence in the Middle East, a “diffusion of power” based on shifting economic power and demographic trends, and the rise of “a certain pragmatism about the limitations of military force.”  As the federal deficit will require challenging trade offs particularly for the military, Adm. Mullen stressed the importance of  prioritization in order to responsibly maintain an effective and flexible military force that, along with smart decisions in diplomacy and development, will contribute to national security.

At the end of his speech, Adm. Mullen fielded an array of questions from the audience spanning topics such as the disclosure of intelligence capabilities and the Navy SEALs, the Arab Spring, the war in Afghanistan, the domestic budget discussion, and the role of diplomacy, development and defense in Africa.  Take a look, and, as always, we welcome your comments!


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