Herman Cohen was United States Assistant Secretary of State for Africa during the George W Bush administration and was ambassador in Africa under the Jimmy Carter administration. He served as deputy assistant secretary of the Bureau of Intelligence and Research, and was also Senior Director for Africa in the National Security Council during President Ronald Reagan’s regime. In this interview with Tokunbo Adedoja, in Washington DC, Cohen speaks on U.S. - Africa relations, governance in Nigeria since 1999, and the annulment of the June 12, 1993 presidential election. Excerpts:
You were U.S. ambassador in Africa in the late 70s and early 80s, and later Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs in the late 80s and early 90s. How would you describe U.S.-Africa relations?
Ever since African countries gained independence, the known U.S. policy has been economic development. We tried to avoid including Africa in the Cold war or other geopolitical issues. Our known priority was economic development. When I was Assistant Secretary, I saw that there were a number of civil wars in Africa that were preventing economic development and I thought that the best thing we could do was to contribute to the end of the civil wars - in Mozambique, in Angola, and Liberia, Rwanda, Sudan and we worked on those. And the reason we worked on those was that the Africans themselves were considering the civil wars as internal and they could not interfare. But after 1993, the Organisation of African Unity decided that they could not stay out of these problems. There were refugees that were inhibiting agriculture. After 1993 when I left office, the Organi
How would you respond to the U.S. support for unapologetically autocratic regimes in Africa, whose actions contradicted U.S. positions on democracy, social justice, and free enterprise, during and after the Cold War era?
I don’t agree with that. I think the U.S. supported most African countries. As I said before, our interest was economic development. Some of the governments that we supported, such as President Mobutu (Sese Sekou) in the Congo, were considered to be very corrupt and very authoritarian, I think up to the end of the 1980s, but most of the governments in Africa had a one-party state and they were somewhat corrupt. For example, everyone admired President Nyerere of Tanzania, President Kaunda of Zambia, but if you look at them, their regimes were just as corrupt as the Congo. Now, in the Congo, President Mobutu himself, and his family, were stealing a lot, but if you look at Tanzania and Zambia, the parties, the single parties, were more powerful than the government and they were siphoning off a great deal of money that should have gone to help the people. So, I don’t think the U.S. should be accused of supporting bad regimes. All the regimes in Africa up to the late 1980s or early 90s, when multiparty democracy started to come, were almost alike. Some people thought that Mobutu was horrible, but he was not different from most of them.
But he was killing opponents.
No, he was not. I was in Kinshasa and I heard a Voice of America broadcast saying: “The government of Tanzania has released 1,500 political prisoners.” Mobutu never had so many political prisoners.
But he killed the Prime Minister (Evariste Kimba) and the defence minister (Jerome Anany)?
Well, Patrice Lumumba wasn’t killed by Mobutu. Mobutu wasn’t even president then when Lumumba died. He was in the army. It was done by Moise Tshombe. But anyway, after he became president, he was just like all the other heads of state. I don’t think the U.S. had any particular leader that they supported. When (Gen. Sanni) Abacha was head of Nigeria, we had normal relations with him; we had to have normal relations with him. We don’t boycott people because their internal politics don’t agree with ours.
Africa is embroiled in crisis. In the Horn of Africa, Somalia is practically an ungoverned state now, in the West, Mali which is steadily sliding into serious chaos, and even some parts of northern Nigeria are in crisis now. As somebody who has engaged Africa for a long time, are you worried about the development?
Yes, I am worried because you have people involved in these destabilisation operations who say they are extreme Islamists, and they are affiliated with Al Qaeda. This means they are out to hurt the United States, they want to blow up airplanes and that sort of thing. So we have to be worried about that. Also, they are very bad for the countries they are in. For example, in Mali they are destroying ancient monuments, which is very sad, and they are causing the countries to go backwards. They don’t want girls to go to school, for example. The same thing in Somalia with the al Shabaab. They are cutting off hands and I think it is a terrible tragedy for those countries. And I hope that the various peace-keeping efforts that are going on now could end those tragedies.
Do you foresee AFRICOM becoming involved in the internal stability of some of these African states?
I don’t think so. I think President (Barack) Obama and President (George) Bush before him, neither of them want to send American troops to Africa. We think that Africa has the means to take care of these problems with American help. For example, in Somalia you have the African Union force, which is called the AMISOM with Uganda troops, Burundi troops, Ethiopian troops and Kenyan. What are we doing? We are supplying training; we are supplying transport and logistics, without supplying any U.S. troops. Now, Mali, a decision hasn’t been made on how to deal with that issue. But I know that ECOWAS, which is based in Abuja, they are talking about now, using military force. I am sure if they want to do it, U.S. will support them. But I do not expect that American troops would be sent to Africa. This brings up the whole idea of imperialism, colonialism; we don’t want to do that.
In the case of Mali, for instance, that question arises against the background of the enormous expectations from Nigeria, which is the major military power in West Africa. When Liberia had crisis, Nigeria provided a chunk of ECOMOG troops. Now Nigeria does not seem to have the capacity to do that because it is battling its own internal crisis too.
I agree with you. Nigeria has its own internal problems, very serious, and with Boko Haram. And I think if ECOWAS wants to send a stabilising force to Mali, I don’t think Nigeria will be ready to participate. But there are many other countries in ECOWAS, especially the French-speaking. After all, Mali is a French-speaking force. Senegal has a very good army; Burkina-Faso has a very good army. So, I will expect them to bear the major burden of Mali crisis.
That brings us to the issue of ECOMOG. Nigeria was the brain behind it, but in spite of the historical relations between U.S. and Liberia, U.S. was not really engaging Nigeria on how to resolve the Liberian crisis, instead, U.S. was engaging Senegal. What was responsible for this?
I was Assistant Secretary (of State for Africa) at the time. I wanted to do more. I didn’t want to send U.S. troops to Liberia, I wanted to do certain things, like take President (Samuel) Doe out of Liberia and let Charles Taylor come in without fighting. It would have saved a lot of lives. But President (George H W) Bush decided we should not get too involved in Liberia. He was worried that we don’t have a long term commitment there and he decided to let ECOMOG do the full job, and I think they did a good job. Towards the end of the Liberian crisis, we persuaded President (Abdou) Diouf of Senegal to send a force there because Charles Taylor said he would accept Senegal. He considered them more neutral than ECOMOG. But Charles Tailor was treacherous; he killed a lot of Senegalese troops. I am quite happy that he has now been judged by the international court as a war criminal, because he was responsible for many crimes.
But there are feelings that if the U.S. had engaged Nigeria very well, as the military power in the region and the force behind ECOMOG, and persuaded Doe to leave power, perhaps, Liberia would have been spared that terrible episode and the crisis would not have spilled over to Sierra-Leone.
That is a very good question, I don’t disagree with it. I had virtually persuaded Doe to leave Liberia in July 1990. He was ready to go but then President Bush told me to stop working on that. If you read my book, you will see a chapter on that. And I was very disappointed that he didn’t let me finish my job. But I thought ECOMOG did very well. Even if Doe had left, and Taylor had come in, I think that he was so paranoid; he thought that all these countries were against him. I think he would have still attacked Sierra-Leone, anyway. That is my belief. He was such a wild and a paranoid egomaniac. I think he would have still done it, anyway. But I agree that the U.S. should have done more in Liberia. If you read my book, you will see that I expressed great disappointment about that.
Nigeria was in the 70s, 80s and 90s described as the giant of Africa, and it took great pride in that, but now, the country is being referred to as the troubled giant. What do you think has held Nigeria back, in spite of its vast potentials?
I am not an expert in Nigeria’s internal politics but I follow it. You have so many different ethnic groups, so many different languages. I have a feeling that the people of Nigeria have still not got to a point where they think of themselves as part of a great Nigerian nation. But they think that, I am Yoruba, or Igbo, or Hausa and they give more loyalty to that. This is quite normal in the early stages of development. I know back then in Europe, in the olden days, people would say I am not Dutch person, I am a Catholic, or I am a Protestant. It took many centuries before they could get over it. The leadership of Nigeria has been very disappointing, it seems to me. Ever since the return of democracy in 1999, the leadership seems to have spent more resources on making themselves more powerful than helping the people. Nigerians have been most unfortunate.
You were Assistant Secretary of State during the military era in Africa. Would you say that Africa is making progress, and specifically Nigeria?
I think it is making progress, although, slowly. Nigeria, what I am seeing now is not much improvement in governance ever since (Gen. Ibrahim) Babangida left, no since Abacha left. I don’t see much improvement in governance, especially, the way oil money is handled. Except that I am quite pleased that the state allocations took place under democracy.
What kind of state allocations?
Yes, the oil money under the constitution. This is a good thing because everything does not all stay in Abuja. Now the big problem is that so many of the governors are not using the money correctly. You have a few like Lagos State and Rivers State where you see things happening, while in some other states you don’t see much happening. So, that is a question of local politics. So, I think there is improvement, but there is a lot of ways to go before we can say that Nigeria has excellent governance that is using its resources wisely, for countries whose main source of revenue is oil, by that I mean the preponderance source of revenue. U.S. is a big oil producer, UK, but it is not the main source of their wealth. It is part of it. But in countries where the main source of wealth is oil, there is only one country in the world that has ever used that wealth correctly, and that is Norway. Norway has done a wonderful job, they set aside funds for future generations, they built infrastructure. But in Nigeria, despite all the increase in oil prices, poverty rates are going up. People who live in rural areas do they see many roads. Do they see many irrigation systems? Do they see power? I think it is a disgrace that Nigeria with 150 million people has only 4,000 megawatts, while South Africa with 40 million people has 40,000 megawatts. Something has been going wrong in the governance, and that is unfortunate.
You earlier said you are not an expert on Nigeria, but from what you have said so far, you seemed to know more than an observer. What do you think is the way out for Nigeria?
I think it’s a question of political will. Right now you have a system, I believe, where people are locked into certain ways of doing things, and it’s hard to break out. You have a number of interested groups, and we have them in the United States. For example, coal miners. Coal miners are very important part of the people of this country. Now coal is very polluting. So, all the people who believe in the environment say we must stop coal production; we must stop sending coal into our rivers. But the coal miners are saying, “No, this is our living. If you stop coal, we will all die, we won’t have any work.” These are vested interests which are preventing progress from taking place. You have a lot of them in Nigeria. For example, why are the refineries not working 100 per cent? I think you have some interested people who take a lot of money and bring in oil products that should be coming from the refineries, and this is true throughout the economy. So, how do you break that? I don’t know. But I think it starts with real electoral reform. Most of the U.S. ambassadors in Nigeria are good friend of mine, and I ask them this question, and they say, “we must have electoral reform so that people can speak, not just one party - the PDP.” So that people can speak and choose people like the governor of Lagos State and the governor of Rivers and put them in power at the federal government (level), and you will get good government.
While you were Assistant Secretary, Nigeria embarked on a political transition programme, and just a couple of months after you left office, there was an election on June 12, 1993 that has been described as the freest and most credible in the nation’s history, and which Chief Moshood Abiola, who later died in detention, was poised to win. What was your reaction when you heard that Abiola died in the presence of top American diplomats?
I was very sad that he died, but I didn’t believe that there was any connection between the visit and his death. Whatever was the cause, whether it was natural or unnatural, I am sure the U.S. delegation had no connection to his death. I am sure they would have wanted him to be released, I am sure they would have wanted him to be president. So, I am sure there was no connection. It’s unfortunate that the election was annulled. But I think the military would have had a coup, anyway, if Abiola had become president. The election was annulled in June, I believe. I left office in April 1993; it was my last month in office. President (Bill) Clinton had already been elected. My replacement was coming in already. Then I got a call, I think in March, that I should come to the hotel fast to meet two Nigerian generals – I won’t give you the names. So I met with them, this was before the election. And they said, “Both of these candidates are jokers.” They used that term “jokers”. And they said, “We can’t accept either of them to be president of Nigeria.” Then, I said to myself, what should I do with this information? I didn’t know what to do with that information, so, I did nothing. So, eventually, you saw what happened. It is my theory that both of them probably knew that there would be a coup after the election, whoever got elected. Maybe, Abacha wanted to take power, anyway. So, that’s why he (Babangida) cancelled the election and put in (Chief Ernest) Shonekan, hoping that it could work out and get another election. But Abacha came in, anyway. When I had conversation with these two generals, I knew something was very wrong.
But couldn’t the U.S. have done something to help us save democracy, because that was a Third Republic that Nigerians were all looking forward to and it was eventually aborted?
I didn’t know what to do. I am sure Babangida knew what I knew. These gentlemen were telling me that they wouldn’t accept either of these candidates, and I am sure they told him. So, what can I do? If I went to tell him, I will tell him something he already knew.
But even after the election was annulled, there was still a coup. Shonekan was removed.
Then I was no longer the Assistant Secretary. I don’t know what the U.S. policy was.
But, as was the general impression in Nigeria in those days, was Abiola close to the U.S. government, and couldn’t the U.S. have done something to save Nigeria from that crisis, because since the June 12 crisis, Nigeria has not really been the same?
That is a good question but I am not sure I have got the answer. Babangida cancelled the election. I think at that moment, we should have protested very much. He didn’t cancel a fraudulent election. He cancelled a free and fair election. We should have been very upset about it. Yes, we didn’t do that. That was the people who replaced me. I don’t know why. I think it wasn’t Abiola so much, it was about cancelling the election. That was a key thing, we didn’t care who won. I don’t know what we said to Babangida at that time. But why we didn’t protest much and get angry, I don’t know. That is a good question that you have to ask my successor.
But Canada took the lead, even in terms of canvassing for sanctions against the military regime, which is the kind of role the U.S. is known for and which it could have played well?
I am sure, U.S. had nothing against Abiola. We liked him, he had a good lobby here, he was paying lobbyists here and they did a good job. We had nothing against Abiola. So, why we didn’t protest the cancellation so much is what I don’t know. That is a good question, but I have never seen anything written about that.
Nigeria aspires to get a permanent seat on the UN Security Council and there is a growing call for Africa to be given a permanent slot in the Security Council. Do you see that happening soon and do you see Nigeria getting a slot?
As far as I know, the U.S. would support having permanent seats for Asia, Latin America, and Africa. But the question is, who will occupy those seats? In Latin America, there is Brazil or Argentina; in Asia you have China already. What is the other country? Will it be India? Will it be Pakistan? So, it is very difficult to choose without creating great difficulties. In Africa, there are two powerful, important countries. South Africa is the biggest economic power, Nigeria is the biggest power with population. So which one do you choose to be the permanent representative? Nigeria and South Africa, I wouldn’t want to be in Washington to choose one of those. Maybe, the Africans themselves can work it out. I doubt if they can agree. United States is not going to be opposed to the idea of a permanent seat. I am sure they would be very happy to see Nigeria is selected. But the United States is not going to select. If we select Nigeria, South Africa would hate us, if we select South Africa, Nigeria would hate us. So we have to choose the third country, Rwanda (laughs).
But don’t you think Nigeria is more strategic to the U.S. than any other country in Sub-Saharan Africa?
I agree with you. In terms of resources, stability (peace-keeping) operations, you name it, Nigeria is key. My personal view is that Nigeria should have a permanent seat. But I don’t speak for the U.S. government.
Looking at some of the things that have happened in recent times, like the Trayvon Martin issue, would you say race is still a delicate fault line in the U.S.?
I would say race continues to be significant, but it is much less than it was 40 years ago when we had the first legislation prohibiting segregation in public places, in schools, in theatres, in hotels. Racial relations have improved considerably since then. But you still have what I will say, 10 per cent of Americans who are racially prejudiced. Just as you will have certain number of people who are prejudiced against certain religions. For example, Mitt Romney is running for president, I have seen it on television, certain religious groups saying Mormonism is not a religion, it’s a cult, and it’s not Christianity. So, I will say that a significant number of Americans would not vote for Romney because he is a Mormon, and a significant number of Americans would not vote for Obama because he is African-American. We have it, definitely, but I think if you look back since 1960s, racial relations have improved tremendously in this country. The fact that President Obama was elected is proof of that. But it still exists. The Trayvon Martin case is evidence of that. You have somebody who is a volunteer to help the security police in his neighbourhood. He goes around and sees somebody looking suspicious. If Trayvon Martin had not been black, he would not be considered suspicious. So, various prejudices. But it’s much less than it used to be. And I see all the Africans leaving in this country now; there has been a big immigration here from Ethiopia, and West Africa, a lot of people living here. I think there are about 10, 000 Nigerians living here practising medicine, and generally, they are doing very well. They don’t suffer so much discrimination. The situation has greatly improved but you are not going to have a 100 per cent tolerance in any country, I think.
You served under a Democrat as envoy in Africa – that is President Jimmy Carter. You also served in a Republican regime as Assistant Secretary of State under President George W H Bush. Both Carter and Bush Snr. were one-term presidents. You are in a good position to say what could make one a one-term president. Having observed Clinton and Bush Jr., who were two-term presidents, what would you say are the chances of Obama in the November election?
I compare Obama’s situation with George Bush Snr., who was president when I was Assistant Secretary. He had only one term and the economic situation was exactly the same as under Obama. He had a very bad two years of economic decline. And just in his last year, everything started to improve. It didn’t improve enough, and so, he was defeated. And Clinton came in and benefitted from all the improvements. So, I think Obama will have the same problem. The bad economic situation which he inherited, he didn’t close it and now in his last year, things are improving slowly. But I believe that he would lose the election because of the economic situation and the next president, Romney, will benefit from the improvement. That is my prediction.