BOOK REVIEW: THE MIND OF THE AFRICAN STRONGMAN

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BOOK REVIEW: THE MIND OF THE AFRICAN STRONGMAN BY AMBASSADOR HERMAN “HANK” COHEN

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!
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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!

2015: THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UNKNOWN CHALLENGES GOING FORWARD?

DANGERS, OPPORTUNITIES, AND CHOICES IN 2015 AND BEYOND

By: Harry C. Blaney III

After looking back at 2014, which was in so many ways a time of change and a time of conflict and tragedy for many around the world but there were also moments of active and sometimes productive diplomacy and renewal that transpired. In some areas of the world, it was lamentably much of the same. The sad questions that remain: Was the globe well served by its leaders? Did the citizens of each nation take the lessons of our times with renewed understanding and engagement? Did the institutions of our international community react, educate, and address with honesty and in comprehensive detail what these changes and trends portend for our frail planet? Does the international community know what needs to be done to safeguard the security and lives of its citizens?

Looking ahead, there are two categories of our analysis: (1) Recognizing the distinctly “macro global” trends of 2015, and (2) an attempt to understand these trends and consequences while devising possible responses to specific functional and regional problem areas.

In the “macro” or what some call the “geo-strategic” level, and what I have also called major global challenges, we are indeed facing the kind of significant risks and dangers which are among the most confounding and complex, along with not as easily understood barriers to progress. We often see across-the-board disruptive forces that impact much of the rest of the specific regional and functional issues we face.

Looking forward, there are two important issues. First, what are the underlying landscapes and trends that are shaping our global system? Second, what can the United States, our allies and friends, do to improve global security, poverty, and reduce violence and secure well being as we move forth into 2015 and beyond?

 

PRESIDENT OBAMA’S “SECOND WIND” ON GLOBAL ISSUES AND SECURITY

 One of the most important new developments is a tougher, more focused and more innovative stand by President Obama in foreign affairs including national security. This policy is still created with great deliberation, but also with more of a will to act “out of the box” than it did before the November election.

                 

Already, there are several examples of this development. One example is the agreement with China regarding a climate change limitation of greenhouse gasses that bypasses Congress. Another example that has great importance is the decision to open negotiations with Cuba, creating the ability to establish diplomatic relations and to relax decade’s old failed sanctions, overall promoting closer and a more intense engagement. His immediate action to deal with Ebola showed when prompt action was clearly needed he would act.  The very recent decision to continue to negotiate with Iran over their nuclear program as well as to start a quiet dialogue on broader issues, like how to handle ISIS, has also become another signal of this new development.  All show a new tendency to take political risks at home to achieve key American objectives.  

 

In his State of the Union speech, President Obama made it clear that he would be more active in taking the lead on a host of outstanding and difficult issues abroad. As our world grows more conflict prone, he is more assertive to make our best efforts to try to mitigate the worst consequences of upheaval, humanitarian disasters, global health dangers, the rich-poor poverty gap, terrorism and its repercussions, and last but not least the so called “rise” of China and Russian aggression. Presidential meetings in Saudi Arabia and India indicate a game-changing mode. But his caution and deliberation are likely to continue.

 

It is clear that the White House, Department of State, and Department of Defense are all currently going through a “re-thinking” of American strategy to account for the fast moving changes that are developing around the world. Included in this reassessment are relations with Russia; especially dealing more actively with the escalating Ukrainian-Russian conflict. This is extremely relevant as this conflict not only touches the security of our NATO countries, but also shows a perspective for a long-term diplomatic modus vivendi with Russia. But, as this is being written, there is a building consensus on both sides of the Atlantic that some added assistance to Ukraine is necessary.

 

Look for new instruments and modalities from Obama to shape the foreign affairs agenda and debate in the coming months. Also look for Secretary John Kerry to be even more active in setting the stage in places like the Middle East, China, Africa, and India.  Expect a host of added initiatives over the coming months and even into 2016. President Obama is clearly laying a more active and innovative American agenda in the foreign affairs field, even beyond his term in office.

 

A second installment of this post, looking forward into 2015 and beyond,  specifically in key problem sectors describing the difficulties and opportunities that lay ahead for American foreign and security policy will follow in the coming days.

 

We welcome your comments!

UPDATE ON EBOLA CRISIS: PRESIDENT OBAMA URGES INTERNATIONAL COMMUNITY TO DO MORE

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.