Herman J. Cohen, former assistant secretary of state for Africa, former ambassador, and former special assistant for African affairs to President Reagan, has written a fascinating and clear-eyed book on his “conversations with dictators, statesmen, and father figures.” His interlocutors, including more than sixteen African heads of state, range from Leopold Senghor to Nelson Mandela and F.W. de Klerk.
Cohen seeks to address the question of why fifty years after independence, African countries continue to do relatively poorly. His hypotheses are subtle and do not lend themselves to summary in a blog post. But, they involve leadership failures and the degree to which Africa “…to a great extent continues to be a prisoner of its cultural history.” The book is a great read – I did so in a single sitting because I could not put it down.
Africa watchers will delight in Cohen’s subtle pen portraits of Africa’s big men. Through him, the reader feels he or she actually participates in conversations with personalities as variable as Congo’s Mobuto or Nigeria’s Babangida. Many American readers will be particularly intrigued by his francophone “big men,” with whom we are less familiar than the anglophones. The conversations all provide a feast of insights. My favorite: his conversation with Albertina Sisulu, the wife of the great anti-apartheid crusader Walter Sisulu, and herself a formidable personality, prior to South Africa’s transition to "non-racial democracy." Cohen raised concerns about white South African anxiety regarding the coming changes. Her response: “Why should they worry? We are all Christians.”
Indeed, they were. Cohen concludes that South Africa is different from the rest of sub-Saharan Africa because of its longer exposure to Christianity. He suggests that a shared Christian culture may be why black and white South Africans could work together to establish the new, post-apartheid dispensation based on democracy and the rule of law. Cohen freely acknowledges that his hypothesis is based on conversation rather than academic research. It is likely to be unfashionable. Still, I think he is on to something.