By Julia Schoonover
On Wednesday, September 30, 2015 the World Affairs Council-Washington, DC hosted Mr. Herman Jay Cohen, Ambassador of Gambia and Senegal as part of an Author Series event. Ambassador Cohen not only discussed his most recent book, The Mind of the African Strongman: Conversations with Dictators, Statesmen, and Father Figures, but also took the audience along on a journey of Africa’s history and more recent events.
Ambassador Cohen was the United States Ambassador to Gambia and Senegal from 1977 to 1980. His 38-year career in the Foreign Service including an appointment to the National Security Council during the Ronald Reagan administration and later as Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs under President George H. W. Bush.
“Now its time to test your knowledge on Africa,” said Ambassador Cohen. “What is the size of Africa in comparison to the United States?,” he asked. There were answers throughout the audience, and one guest was very close to a correct answer with a guess of 4. “Africa is approximately 3.5 times the size of the United States,” said Ambassador Cohen. “You could fit the US, Canada, Mexico, and China into Africa.”
Ambassador Cohen’s significant and personal knowledge on Africa was demonstrated throughout the night. Some of the issues Ambassador Cohen cited as being endemic to the continent- such as corruption- can be traced back to the political systems formed after many African countries gained independence from Britain. Placing priority on consensus building, many African Countries developed one-party political systems. Ambassador Cohen argued that a number of the political issues in Africa stem from the one-party system, as it places the party over the government, which can lead to corruption.
Ambassador Cohen was asked about various leaders in Africa, specifically those that the United States supported whom are perceived to not be doing all that is best for their country. Ambassador Cohen’s response was, “You deal with what exists… Never get rid of anyone until you know what’s coming afterward.” He spoke of successes and failures of different countries in Africa. The ambassador stated that a great deal of political unrest and failure stems from bad governance and regimes who try and stay in power as long as they can.
Ambassador Cohen concluded that for Africa to thrive there must be an end to abuses of power, money, and resources. He recognized that this is not easily done, but he maintains great hope that it can be accomplished.