The Mind Of The African Strongman

By Abdullahi sabiu
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The book is a fine historical piece, which offers a deep knowledge about the politics of Africa. Though it is not to be swallowed hook, line and sinker, but the book is really worth the time and resources because of its uniqueness in presentation of facts about Africa and her leaders.

Based on its chapters, Cohen believes that the underdevelopment in Africa is attributable to the sit tight syndrome of the African leaders, as well as their desires at perverting the democratic tenets, as brought by the west.

Through this mind set, he featured the various chapters, all highlighting his original ideological assumptions that African leaders underdeveloped the continent, through corruption and mismanagement of the rich natural resources abounding in Africa.

Though it is not clear if this is the author's first book, but it is a biography collected for political scientists and political leaders of the African origin, even though it will also appeal to the citizens and scholars of the western origin, who may want to know what duty diplomats to Africa performed and what leadership challenges the continent faces.

This book was selected for review because it offers an insight into what the 'West', represented in this book by the United States of America, believes about the African leadership and politics.

The book titled ‘The Mind of the African Strongman’ is an intelligent collection of memoirs and biographies of the strong past leaders, who have emerged on the African continent through various political systems.

It seeks to highlight those leaders who, in the course of their political career, left an indelible mark on the sands of time, especially with regards to power and politics.

Front cover of the book, which is very beautifully designed by Glenn Jones, is adorned in a brightly coloured soft cover, topmost of which is carefully designed with simple but artistically rich character face, bearing the phrase title of the book, “The Mind of The African Strongman”.

Through this simple but catchy phrase title, the readers can at a glance, decipher the objective and communication, which the author sets out to covey to the audience.

To further give a lucid insight into what beautiful work and goal the author is set to achieve, a somewhat cartoon inscription, depicting of human arm and muscle, upon which a greenish map of Africa appears, apparently implying the psychology of the category of African leaders which is being examined by Cohen.

The back cover majorly contains the details and background of the author, including his passport size photograph, the barcode and international book number for the book, it is also engraved with an orange coloured map of Africa, which to a large extent, conveys at a glimpse, an idea of where and what setting it has.

Similarly, the back cover of this brilliant collection of biographies and memoirs is capped by a trademark inscription, which is embedded with the United States Coat of Arm, to indicate the publisher; ‘ADST-DACOR DIPLOMATS AND DIPLOMACY SERIES’.

In the book “The Mind of the African Strongman”, the author; Herman J. Cohen, carefully and beautifully packaged the biographies and political deeds of the frontline and notable strong men of the African politics; democratic and otherwise, including Nigeria’s President Ibrahim Babangida.

Others are: Leopold Sedar Senghor of Senegal, Felix Houphouet-Biogny of Cote d’Ivoire, Albert-Bernard (Omar) Bongo of Gabon, Muammar Muhammad Abu Minyar al-Gaddafi of Libya, Mohamed Siad Barre of Somalia, Joseph Desire Mobutu of Zaire, Laurent-Desire Kabila of Congo, Samuel Doe and Charles Taylor, among others.

Through ‘The Mind of the African Strongman’, Cohen has been able to smartly and concisely contain the antecedents of these great African leaders within this two hundred and five (205) page book, which is divided into fifteen chapters, excluding the index pages, which numbers about nine (9) pages, all for the convenience of readers.

It is a diplomatic literature, which outlines the ventures of the author, as a way to give account of what the US diplomats do across the globe, which has largely remained unsung.

Haven being a diplomatic agent for the US for over thirty eight years, Cohen's experience and encounter in the diplomatic cycle of his country makes his mind-set about Africa and her leaders the most representation of the US and the other Western countries.

This is overtly stated at the introduction, which rethorically queries thus 'After fifty years of postcolonial independence, why are fifty African nations doing relatively poor in terms of socioeconomic development ....'

Therefore, it was chosen for review because, it elucidates the West's portraits of African leaders, as invariably painted by Herman Cohen, a top official of the US government, as he encountered in his long diplomatic career on the African territory.

Most of his encounters are personal and direct with the African leaders under review, hence his impression is rightly that of an authority.

Based on the memoirs and biographies as captured in this book, the author mainly looks at the post independence era, which arguably, is the period when democracy and western style of politics and governance, were still fledging in Africa, which is remarkably different from the power system of the region before the era of western colonialism.

'The Mind of the African Strongman' reviews why the African leaders seek to hold on to power for eternity. Even to the extent that some are reluctant to relinquish power at the point of death or imprisonment.

Looking at the impression which the author created about the character in the first chapter of the book, Leopold Sedar Senghor, it becomes clear that his thesis which intends to represent African leaders as power drunk, who are rather willing to show power became manifested with such expressions like "After full independence in 1961, Senghor had to use force to get rid of his prime minister, who was trying to act independently(3).

He went further to emphasise this by noting thus "During these early years, Senghor demonstrated an iron will and a willingness to use violence if necessary to maintain his power(3).

The true hallmark of political authority is to maintain political sanity in a polity. Where authority stems from two political leaders the same time usually results into anarchy and violence.

So, the primary responsibility of any leader is to maintain stability in the country. And this may likely be what al-Gaddafi was striving to do, but the author, apparently coming from a western orientation, Cohen said "His secret police, total censorship of the media, ruthless assassinations of real or suspected opponents, and financial bribery of tribal and clan leaders guaranteed his total power. It was this power that went to his head and made him into a total megalomaniac.(118)."

It becomes necessary to point this out because the assumption here that Senghor was merely displaying raw powers may not be true, because his actions could be based on his determination to preserve the sanctity in the flow of authority, as can equally happen even in the advanced democracies, including the US.

Cohen also wrongly assumed that the economic challenges facing Africa could be blamed on her leaders alone. He vehemently exonerated the roles plaid by the West to impoverish African when he said that "After more than a half century of independence, the argument that African nations are suffering from continued colonial exploitation rings hollow"(ix).

He rather blamed the woes on the leadership of Africa when he said " observers criticize African government for inept, or even corrupt management of the significant taxes and royalties that come from these extractive industries"(ix).

The author also wrongly dismissed the inherent achievements of Senghor in Senegal when he said that "During his tenure, little was accomplished towards economic development, poverty deepened ...he failed to identify solutions to the country's most profound problems(4).

Aside this, the author has a sound argument that some African leaders have played key role in truncating democracy at different point in time across the continent.

There is are reasons to believe that why they are opposed to democracy is because of the limited time in office which the system offers them, unlike the military or autocratic regime.

At chapter nine of the book, where he reflected on the military government of former Head of State, Ibrahim Babangida in Nigeria, Cohen rightly observed that Babangida was not ready to leave office, even though he reluctantly conducted an election, but at the back of his mind was a grand plot to elongate and perpetuate himself in office.

Making a personal information he got at an informal setting to justify this argument, Cohen said "When the conversation turned to Babangida's experiment with two party democracy, I saw the two generals tighten up visibly. One of them said through clenched teeth, 'Those two candidates are just a couple of jokers. We in the military will not allow either of them to come to power(113)".

This expression justifies why Babangida, just like other heads of state at that period, will stop at nothing to either truncate democracy of alter the system to enable them remain in office as long as they want.

In Nigeria's case, Babangida altered the democracy to suit his purpose. He only allowed two party system, with an intention to become the candidate of one of the parties, but when this plot failed to materialize, he was forced to annul an election considered the most free and fair in the history of Nigeria.

Cohen rightly expressed the feelings of the western world when he said "Why Babangida annuled the election that everybody said was so well done remained a mystery. When the annulment took place, I thought of that conversation with the two Nigerian generals in March. (114).

The intention of Buhari was most likely to remain in office under the guise that the democratic system has failed in Nigeria, hence the author said "Babangida was probably aware of the discontent within the military with the two candidates for President. Perhaps he annulled the election in order to head off a military coup but was unsuccessful(114).

In chapter ten also, which featured Muammr Abu Minyar al-Gaddafi of Libya, it becomes also clear that this great leader in the African continent, like Babangida, never wanted to step down from power, but prefered to alternate between government systems that will enable him remain in power.

"He stepped down as head of state and assumed the title of 'Brother Leader of the Revolution. Under his system, the political power was supposed to belong to revolutionary committees, ...but in reality, Gaddafi and his family exercised all the power and controlled all of the oil revenues(117)".

"The Mind of the African Strongman" is uniquely done because, unlike other such books, this one gives a clear biography of the leaders, as well as telling their antecedents in a convincing style that shows a one on one encounter the author had with the leaders, rather than reading about then from a book. This is awesome.

This book should be read by political observes and scholars because of its ability to touch in near practical terms, the temprament of the various African leaders examined.

I learnt from this book that African leaders are usually involved to intra continental ego to preserve and possibly expand their powers, hence there were some internal conspiracies among some of the leaders to overthrow their colleagues and install a new one.

Late Presidents of Libya, al-Gaddafi, that of Senagal, Senghor, that of Cote d'Ivoire, Houphouet-Biogny, among others were guilty of this offence. One wonders why African leaders would become agents to bring instability and war in most cases against Africa.