The Ambassadors’ Forum: Interview with Ambassador Herman J. Cohen

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Written by Ambassador Stuart Holliday

The Ambassadors’ Forum is a joint initiative of Diplomatic Courier Magazine, Meridian International Center, and the Council of American Ambassadors. The series captures the views of Ambassadors from around the world on the critical role of diplomacy in addressing current global challenges.

In this issue, President and CEO of Meridian International Center, Ambassador Stuart Holliday interviews Ambassador Herman J. Cohen, former U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs. Ambassador Cohen also served as U.S. Ambassador to Senegal and Gambia for President Carter and in five US Embassies on the continent. He is well known for his work in bringing about peaceful transitions of power in South Africa and Namibia and helped to end civil wars in Angola, Ethiopia, and Mozambique. Ambassador Cohen offers deep insights on Africa and entertaining tales of 15 seminal African leaders in the new book, The Mind of the African Strongman: Conversations with Dictators, Statesmen, and Father Figures.

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Stuart Holliday: Welcome, Ambassador Herman Cohen, to Meridian International Center. Africa seems to be everywhere in the news today, and you led the U.S. approach to Africa for many years. You have also written a very interesting book, The Mind of an African Strongman. How did you get interested in Africa?

Ambassador Cohen: Well, that’s a good question because when I was starting my career, simultaneously all these African countries were becoming independent in the late ’50s and the early ’60s. I had taken a master’s degree in economic development, and so I said, “Hey, this is great, all these countries starting out. Maybe I could make a contribution to economic development.” I was also intrigued by the fact that the first president of the United States to deal with Africa policy was Eisenhower. He made a very important decision: he said, “No Cold War in Africa.” So there I was, a young idealist: “Wow, no Cold War. Any other place I could go would be Cold War.” So I volunteered, and I started out in Uganda, and I had five assignments in Africa. I really loved it.

Stuart Holliday: So I know you’re a student of leadership, and there’s a notion that in Africa after the colonial period, that these newly emerging states looked for strong leaders – “Strongmen”. More recently, there have been complaints that the leaders, the so-called “strong” leaders have stayed on, in some cases, too long. How do you think Africa is doing today in terms of peaceful transitions from one leader to the next?

Ambassador Cohen: It’s a mixed bag. Take President Senghor, who was President of Senegal. He had prepared a successor, Abdou Diouf, who became the second president. There were a number of people like that, for example, in Mali. The first elected President of Mali after a military rule was Alpha Konaré, a university professor, a very nice man. And I remember he came here to Washington, and it was a lunch, and he was in his second term. And someone said, “Mr. President, are you going to try to serve a third term?” He said, “No. I’m looking forward to being an ex-president.”

So you have that group of people, but then you have others who say, “I want to be president for life,” and they find ways of staying in. And we’re running into that problem now. President Obama mentioned that in his talk in Ethiopia. He said, “Some people want to change the constitution, which limits them to two terms. I don’t want to do that in the United States.” He says, “I’d love to stay on and be President. I’m enjoying it,” he said. “But I’m going to follow the Constitution. I hope my African friends will do the same.”

So you have the Congo – the two Congos. You have Rwanda. Burundi is just running into a problem, where they say, “We are going to change the constitution.” The President of Burkina Faso tried that in October 2014. And there were so many people protesting in the streets, he had to get out of the country. So it’s a very contentious issue, and I think President Obama is right: they should leave if the constitution requires it.

Stuart Holliday: So I know you did some work to try to push Robert Mugabe to create a little bit more openness in his country. He’s still in power. I think many people are surprised at that. Do you see a soft landing for Zimbabwe in terms of rolling back some of the harsher aspects of his leadership? Or do you think that he or the party will seek to install a group to continue the status quo?

Ambassador Cohen: I’m very worried about Zimbabwe because the party that’s in power, his party, ZANU-PF is going through a lot of infighting. He’s 92 years old, so he can’t stay around much longer. So they’re really elbowing each other to determine who is going to replace him. But he is making the colossal mistake of trying to install his wife. His wife is about 40 years younger. She knows nothing about politics. But he is so obsessed with keeping power in the family.

Stuart Holliday: Why would the people of Zimbabwe put up with that?

Ambassador Cohen: They are very upset about it. And I think if he manipulates it so that his wife gets elected, there’ll be a military coup or something pretty quickly after that.

Stuart Holliday: So let’s talk about Rwanda for a second. Rwanda has become a place that the business community views as stable for investment. It seems to be relatively safe. Obviously, they have had huge tragedies in their past, but there are also discussions of whether there is maybe a little bit of a slippage in terms of democracy and transparency there. How do you see Rwanda?

Ambassador Cohen: Well, Rwanda is a good example of a total authoritarian state. You might want to call him the benevolent dictator, but President Kagame is trying to model himself on the late Prime Minister of Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew. You couldn’t get elected against Lee Kuan Yew in Singapore; they had a so-called democracy. And it’s the same thing for President Kagame: everything is controlled, rigid. He’s very authoritarian, but he’s running an excellent economic system. It’s good for investment. They welcome investors. Everything is honest. The courts are honest. There’s no corruption.

Stuart Holliday: Right, which is unusual. As President Obama pointed out during his trip, he described corruption as sort of one of the main threats to economic development in Africa. You know, corruption’s been around for a long time. Do you think it’s getting worse in Africa, or is it getting better?

Ambassador Cohen: I think it’s getting better, slowly but surely. One of my former professors said, “If you do very well in your economics, you get a waiver on your democracy.” And Americans are primarily interested in whether you are running a good ship economically. Are you allowing foreign investors? And when that happens, then the democracy will come slowly. Look at American democracy and how long it took to become a really good democracy.

Stuart Holliday: True. So you’ve been an ambassador and an assistant secretary.

You’ve been in the field, having to be the President’s representative in a country. And, of course, that’s a very key role. You’ve also had to oversee the whole continent’s policies. But let’s talk about the role of the ambassador for a second.  In this age of technology and special envoys and jet travel, sometimes this role of the ambassador gets overlooked. But in your case, I was wondering if you could talk about your role in Senegal, and how it was very important to have a strong ambassador in Senegal, and what you were able to do there.

Ambassador Cohen: Well, every ambassador when they go out receives a letter from the President saying, “You’re my representative and you have jurisdiction over all US Government activities except if there’s a military operation during a war time.” Ultimately, you’re in charge. You’re the captain of the ship, and I took that very seriously. And in Senegal, we had 25 different agencies because it’s a hub for West Africa even though it’s a small country. We had the Federal Aviation, Agriculture, Commerce – they were all there. We had two different military missions with attachés.

At my first meeting with what we called the “country team,” I brought all the agencies together, and I didn’t read them the letter saying, “Look, I’m the boss.” I said, “Look, I don’t want any infighting among different agencies. I don’t want Agriculture fighting with Commerce, or Peace Corps fighting with CIA – that sort of thing. We’re all in this together.” I said, “The main enemy for all of us is Washington. We have to make sure that Washington doesn’t try to overpower us, because they don’t know what’s going on here. We know it.” So the ambassador must be strong, he must coordinate all the agencies, and he must be ready to take initiative.

Stuart Holliday: In your book, you have a special chapter on the Belgian Congolese, and you’re a little tough on the Belgians in the Congo.

A lot of people don’t realize that the conflict in the Congo has resulted in the deaths of more people than any other country since World War II. Congo is rich in resources. It’s got a large landmass, obviously a talented group of people. Do you see them emerging? And what’s necessary for Congo to become a stable, functioning country?

Ambassador Cohen: Well, they need good governance. The present regime under President Kabila is not providing good governance. It’s extremely corrupt. They sell copper and they sell other minerals which are very valuable. For example, there’s something called Coltan, which is the nickname for Columbo Tantalite. Every cell phone in the world has some of that. It’s a very valuable thing. So they’re making lots of money. Copper prices have been the highest in history, even though they’ve dipped a little bit lately.

Where is that revenue going? Very little of that revenue gets into the central bank and into the general budget, so the Congolese people are not seeing much benefit. Poverty rates remain very high. Plus, the fact that in the east you have all sorts of militias and rebel groups. Some of them are sponsored by neighbors, like Rwanda and Uganda, because it’s lucrative. All of these groups own mines or they control mines. They have cheap labor to mine it for them. It all goes out through the east. And, there again, the Congolese people are getting very little.

They’re supposed to have an election in November 2016, and there’s a two-term limit, and President Kabila has not said, “I will observe it.” He said, “We’ll have an election.”

Stuart Holliday: Are we losing Africa to the Chinese?

Ambassador Cohen: I don’t think so. I don’t think China is a competitor of the United States. By the way, the two biggest countries for direct investment in Africa are not the Chinese and not the Americans. The two biggest counties for direct investment in Africa are the UK and France. They’re the big investors. Also, when you look at who has the big commodities – oil and copper and things like that – its Western countries. You have Chevron. You have Exxon. They’re the ones who are pumping the oil in Nigeria and Angola. So China is not a competitor.

Stuart Holliday: Even on the infrastructure side?

Ambassador Cohen: Well, on the infrastructure side, China is not giving any gifts. They’re interested in commodities for their big economy, so they go to an African country, say, like Angola. They say to Angola, “Okay. If you can give us 100,000 barrels a day, 200,000 barrels a day, we’ll do some infrastructure for you. You want a dam; you want some roads.”

And they don’t give it as a gift. Well, first of all, they buy the oil at world prices. They’re not asking for bargains. And when they do infrastructure, they give a soft loan – you know, ten years grace period and that sort of thing. Its money they’ll never get back, I think. But that’s all they do. And they import a lot of Chinese workers, which doesn’t give jobs to Africans.

Stuart Holliday: That’s really where the United States seems to differentiate itself. We seem to be investing in the people of Africa. We focus on skills development and entrepreneurship. There has been a lot of focus on this issue at the 2015 African Heads of State Summit, in the area of power generation and economic development. I was wondering if you could talk first about young people in Africa and their potential and how you see them contributing to the economy, and then talk about the infrastructure that they will need to do that.

Ambassador Cohen: There are too many young people who are unemployed in Africa. And if you look at the typical African country, the largest demographic is people under 30. So if they’re unemployed or they’re just doing a soft type of business, such as trading in the streets, that’s not good for morale, and that’s why you have young people in Nigeria doing Boko Haram, this Islamist group, or in northern Mali. So they need a lot of possibilities for job creation.

Now, President Clinton started the African Growth and Opportunity Act, which says anything Africa makes, America will take duty free. And that’s been a partial success in certain countries. That’s created jobs in apparel and in textiles, and that sort of thing. So when the Chinese come and they bring their own labor, a number of countries are saying, “You have to stop that. Maximum – five percent Chinese labor.”

And also you’ve got to start bringing people into the executive management levels. If you go to an American oil company in Africa, you see African executives getting higher and higher. The top guys in Chevron in Nigeria are Nigerians, and they’re not taken there for political reasons. These guys have been working for Chevron for 30 years and they’ve been working all over the world.

Stuart Holliday: So, to the power question, Power Africa, requires major investment. The idea is that to have industry, you need to have power. Do you think that American companies like GE and others are going to benefit from this? And are they going to get these large power partnerships?

Ambassador Cohen: The company for which I work, Contour Global, built a 100 megawatt power plant in Togo, totally financed by themselves, getting money from OPIC, the US agency, the African Development Bank, and the International Finance Corporation. And the Togolese government signed a contract to buy the power, so that means that Togo didn’t have to borrow money for a power plant.

And this is the trend that President Obama is pushing: “Don’t spend your own money; these companies are there to come in and invest.” And it’s slowly spreading. Now, General Electric generally is not an investor. They sell equipment, but they’re selling lots of it. And a lot of companies that are investing buy General Electric equipment. But they also buy from other countries. The big problem in getting private business for power is some of these leaders can’t get their minds around the fact that foreigners own power plants. For them, it’s a national security concern.

Stuart Holliday: Let’s switch to culture for a second. You traveled around Africa, and they’re amazingly diverse cultures in Africa. What do you think is important, from the US standpoint, in terms of understanding the African culture? What do Americans need to understand about the culture, the arts, the music, and the importance of culture in society?

Ambassador Cohen: If you’re going to do business there, if you’re going to have government-to-government relations, it’s very important to understand culture. And one thing I’ve seen in most of the African countries where Bantu languages are spoken – everything west of Sudan, west of Ethiopia, and west of Egypt – I find that these people are very tolerant. For example, Senegal has a population that is 95 percent Muslim; most people celebrate Christmas with lights, trees, and that sort of thing. They really embrace other peoples and cultures.

One thing that bothers me about African culture is there’s still a difficult way of getting a sense of nationhood. Most African groups still look to their local ethnic group as a place to give allegiance.

Now, I write about President Mobutu in my book, who was president of the Congo for about 33 years. And he was corrupt. He was arrogant. He was a dictator. But, he gave them a sense of nationhood, so most people in the Congo would say, “I’m a Congolese, and those Rwandans in the east and the Ugandans have to leave.”

Stuart Holliday: There seems to be a great deal of passion by Americans in churches and missions and the people who want to give back to Africa from a philanthropic standpoint.

Ambassador Cohen: Definitely. Churches and missions have done wonderful work in education and health, especially in the Congo where the Presbyterians are in Kasai and the Southern Baptists are in Kivu. And what I like about the American missionaries is they train locals, so the top people in all of the religious denominations in most African countries are Africans. And you have Americans there helping out. They’re teaching and giving advice, but they’re not running their denominations anymore.

Stuart Holliday: So who was your favorite African leader to work with when you were in your position?

Ambassador Cohen: Well, my favorite, the one I respected the most, I would say was President Léopold Senghor of Senegal because he was an intellectual. He liked to discuss world affairs and he understood the culture of the people. It was a great pleasure to have a dialog with him. And he did some good work. For example, when the Egyptians signed a deal with Israel at Camp David, all of the other Muslim countries wanted to boycott Egypt, but he said, “No, it’s a great deal. I’m for it.” So he did a lot of work mediating.

Stuart Holliday: Why did you write your book on the African Strongman?

Ambassador Cohen: Well, it’s interesting. As I indicated before, when I started my career, independence and economic development were really critically important. I wanted to go to Africa and help these guys out, but the leaders of the first generation had different priorities. First of all, they wanted to protect their independence. You know, there were a lot of predators out there. Secondly, they wanted to stay in power. And, thirdly, they wanted to protect their ethnic group and their families. Economic development was kind of vague for them.

So I was very disappointed. I loved the Africans. I loved working with them. But the absence of any enthusiasm for economic development really bothered me, and that’s why Africa now is kind of behind the rest of the world. The new generation is better. So I said, “Let’s tell the story of Africa through the views and the statements of the first generation of leaders,” and that’s why I wrote the book.

Stuart Holliday: Fascinating. And, you know, we can’t have an interview on Africa without talking about Nelson Mandela. What made him such a great leader?

Ambassador Cohen: Nelson Mandela was so tolerant and he was a person who liked to reconcile with people. And I wrote one story in the book where I met Mrs. Sisulu. Now, Walter Sisulu was a comrade of Mandela. They were together 27 years in prison, so he was one of the top leaders of the African National Congress. Mrs. Sisulu was under house arrest for she was a very militant person. They allowed me to come to her house to visit – a very gracious lady. And I said, “You know, there are rumors going around that they’re going to let Mandela out and they’re going to bring about majority rule, but the whites here are fearful. What’s going to happen to them, if that happens?” She said, “Why should they be fearful?” She said, “We’re all Christians.” And that light bulb went off in my head. Christianity was such a powerful thing in South Africa because they’d been exposed to it for 350 years, unlike the rest of Africa. And that’s what motivated Mandela, this Christian idea of reconciliation. And that’s what he did when he came out.

Stuart Holliday: Is there anything that you want to share in closing, either about the book or about what you hope people will learn about Africa going forward?

Ambassador Cohen: Well, my message is don’t give up on Africa. It has a lot of potential. Also, if you look at the future of the United States and other countries, we need Africa. They have a tremendous amount of arable land which is not being used. They have a tremendous amount of water. So a couple of generations from now when we run out of land and we run out of water, we are going to need Africa to cooperate.