The Mind of the African Strongman by Herman J. Cohen

The Mind of the African Strongman

Conversations with Dictators, Statesmen, and Father Figures
Email this review


Retired diplomat Cohen (Intervening in Africa, 2000) provides insight into the tension between dictatorship and democracy in post-colonial Africa.

With his extensive diplomatic experience—he served as director for Central African Affairs and George H.W. Bush’s assistant secretary of state—Cohen is well-placed to comment on African politics for the Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training-DACOR Diplomats and Diplomacy series. He met and negotiated with many African leaders, and he relies on these personal anecdotes rather than stats for context and background. Subjects are helpfully grouped according to their commonalities—Francophone, British Commonwealth, or military chiefs. The work also contrasts recent pairs of leaders in Congo, Liberia, and South Africa. Cohen’s sharp eye reveals dictators’ fascinating and bizarre behavior: Albert-Bernard Bongo of Gabon, a 5-foot-1-inch lothario, tried to change the law so polygamy could be introduced at any point in a marriage; Joseph Désiré Mobutu (the Democratic Republic of the Congo) forced citizens to exchange Western first names for African ones; upon his ousting, Liberia’s Samuel Doe demanded an airlift for his Coca-Cola stash. Many of the politicians profiled held typically contradictory views. They espoused socialist principles while they were patronizing and paternalistic toward their people. Taking the long view both geographically and chronologically, Cohen draws connections among countries and pinpoints the long-term impacts of individual leaders in concise statements. For instance, Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe “may be Africa’s last true-believing Marxist-Leninist”; Mobutu Sese Seko “straddled two worlds—the traditional African village culture and Western ways.” Taglines heading each chapter exemplify this ability to encapsulate a politician’s legacy, like “Ibrahim Babangida—Nigeria: The General Who Found Democracy Inconvenient.” Although military coups and illegitimate leadership continue, Cohen is optimistic about Africa’s future, particularly since Obama is willing to show the necessary “tough love.” Sixteen black-and-white images, some of which feature Cohen meeting with the leaders, including Leopold Sedar Senghor and Felix Houphouet-Boigny, accompany the text.

This often entertaining survey of recent African political history should interest both scholars and laypeople.    

Pub Date: May 5th, 2015
ISBN: 978-0-9864353-1-7
Page count: 218pp
Publisher: Vellum
Program: Kirkus Indie
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 15th, 2015


NonfictionMUGABE by Andrew Norman
by Andrew Norman
NonfictionTHE DICTATOR'S LEARNING CURVE by William J. Dobson
by William J. Dobson
NonfictionDEFEATING DICTATORS by George B.N. Ayittey
by George B.N. Ayittey