Cohen, Herman J.: The Mind of the African Strong Man: Conversations with Dictators, Statesmen and Father Figures; New Academia, Washington DC, May 2015. - Review By Ahmadu Abubakar.
There are many ways to present the social, political and economic story of Africa. This author has chosen a rather unique method. During his long career as a senior American diplomat specializing in US-Africa relations, Ambassador Herman J. Cohen had opportunities to have intimate private discussions with many of the first generation African Heads of State. He has reproduced these conversations in easily readable prose, in a book that is not voluminuos (only 158 pages), thereby allowing Africa, in a way, to speak for itself.
After the majority of African nations gained their Independence from their European colonial powers between 1957 and 1965, the western industrialized nations enthusiastically began supporting economic development on the continent with both human and financial resources. While the international community was emphasizing economic development in Africa, the early African leaders had other priorities. In most cases, these priorities were at variance with the fundamental objectives of nation building, the "Battle Songs" drummed into the minds of millions and millions of our citizens as reasons why the "Colonial Masters Must Go So Africans Can Control The Destiny Of Africans", a song that is still being sang, albeit with a different slant, in the 21st Century!
Vividly exposed in this book are stories of WHY, HOW, WHEN, dreams from our past became the dashed hopes of yesterday. In the early days after Independence, African governments were operational, but the concept of Nationhood still had to be realized. Our first generation leaders had a lot to worry about. In a Cold War setting, how could they maintain their independence of thought and action, as they found themselves with a choice which had to be made between Communist Soviet Union and Capitalist United States? How could they focus their peoples on building a Nation as opposed to narrow tribal, clan or linguistic loyalties? How could they create an environment favorable to private investors, both national and foreign?
To make matters worse, the people from foreign aid agencies, including the World Bank and the United Nations, tended to force feed their ideas to the Africans. They came in with a “We Have All The Answers” attitude that did not encourage Africans understand in depth enough to take ownership of the development process. This topical issue, one which is still a matter of grave concern in the present time, comes to light in lucid historical details, in a book authored by an American who was a pioneer diplomat in sub - Saharan Africa.
All of these issues and problems are depicted with clarity in this book as Cohen recounts his many conversations with the top African leaders. Many of the early leaders considered their countries to be regional powers. That feeling of being a superior country to neighbouring countries of various sub - regions, in the view of our early Rulers, gave them the right to interfere in their neighbors’ internal affairs, including acts of outright destabilization. It will surprise many readers to get the first hand information in the book of the background causes of many an "imperialist destabilization", two words with which many contemporaries of my generation had hot intellectual exchanges on when we were undergraduates!
This book will interest African journalists, business persons, intellectuals, students, civil society, and general interest readers. The current crop of political leadership, I am sure, will find it an extremely useful guide as they preside over our social, political and economic malaise in sub - Saharan Africa.
It often takes a foreigner to reveal people to themselves. This distinguished American diplomat has done just that by revealing his Conversations with our Founding Rulers, and, with some contemporary ex - Rulers. There is much to make readers sad and there is much to make readers laugh. One needs to read it to get it!
Hon. Ahmadu Abubakar is a fearless Nigerian statesman and social critic who dishes it straight as it is. He currently writes from the United States.