HERMAN HANK COHEN: Beyond Strong Emphasis on Corruption Fight, Buhari Hasn’t Achieved Much

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Ambassador Herman Hank Cohen

Ambassador Herman Hank Cohen, a former US Ambassador to the Congo and Senegal, Special Assistant for African Affairs under President Ronald Reagan and Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs under George H.W. Bush, has been variously described as the man who knows who to call in business and government circles especially in the US State Department. An author of many books on African affairs and President of Cohen & Woods, an international consulting firm, which specialises in assistance to American corporations doing business in Africa, Cohen weighs in on the US-Nigeria relations under President Donald Trump administration, the perennial issues of Nigeria’s low power generation, the need for free and fair elections in 2019, while describing the two presidential candidates – President Muhammadu Buhari and former Vice President Atiku Abubakar – as patriotic Nigerians, who mean well for their country. Cohen, whose consulting activities include the development of energy intensive industries in the Republic of Congo, the mining of bitumen from oil sands in Nigeria and private investment in the Republic of Mauritania, spoke with Nduka Nwosu. Excerpts:

You have been a keen watcher of Nigerian politics and its leaders, what’s your take?
Overall, I find that Nigerian politics have improved over time. President Jonathan’s concession in the 2015 election set a new tone, which elevated the idea of accepting a fair electoral defeat.

As the 2019 presidential election approach, what predictions do you have in your kitty?
My feeling is that Atiku has a good chance to win. Buhari has not accomplished much during his tenure, beyond his very strong emphasis on fighting corruption. I especially note the absence of any progress on new power generation, which is such a tremendous need for ordinary Nigerians.

Between the two major candidates – the incumbent, Muhammadu Buhari and former Vice-President Atiku Abubakar – do you see any difference?
I feel they are both patriotic Nigerians, who want to help the Nigerian people advance towards development. They have different styles, both of which are valid.

What’s your advice to the numerous presidential candidates?
Remain in the game. One can never tell when he or she might catch fire.

What direction would you want the relationship between Nigeria and the US go?
Nigeria is among the United States’ top five relationships in Africa. The others are South Africa, Ethiopia, Ghana, and Kenya. It is particularly important for the US and Nigeria to maintain regular communications for the purpose of stability in Africa. I remember in 1991, when Nigeria led ECOWAS into a military operation to stabilise Liberia. US-Nigeria security cooperation is very important, then and today.

Since your last interview on the power situation in Nigeria, little change has taken place in megawatt elevation even after the so-called emergence of generation and distribution companies. What’s your observation and advice?
The continued power deficit in Nigeria is my biggest disappointment. I remember when President Obasanjo was elected in 1999. When he came to Washington for his victory celebration, he told me that Nigeria would achieve 60,000 MW during his time as President. Very little has been accomplished since then. South Africa, with one-third the population of Nigeria, has 40,000 MW and climbing.

All Nigerian administrations since the end of military rule have failed to manage this problem. I believe that I made a contribution recently, when I persuaded the President of the Senate that the price of off-shore gas needs to be allowed to rise to its market level, so oil companies will have an incentive to bring it to shore for power purposes. In any event, I recommend that about 10 Nigerian business executives working in the US be invited to Nigeria to take charge of the problem. It is a management issue, above all.

You advised on appropriate pricing and investment on gas distribution. Do you still stand on that?
Yes. If prices for gas do not reach their market level, there will be no incentive to stop flaring offshore.

Do you see a rosy future for tropical Nigerian products in the international market?
In the 1950s, just after independence, Nigeria was a power house for tropical products exports – palm produce, groundnuts, cocoa, rubber and pineapples – it was the leading tropical export producer in the world but declined because of the degradation of infrastructure, maintenance, too much dependence on oil and less dependence on agriculture.

The country was overtaken by Brazil and Malaysia. It can regain its position by investing on roads, irrigation, warehouses and other storage facilities, railways et al. Oil revenue can be divested into investments in those areas, then, agriculture will come back as a power house. Nigeria can regain its position as a power house for tropical agriculture.

Like I earlier stated in my previous interview with you, new agricultural initiatives like cassava and sugar production are products that will help alleviate the shortage of food and stop so much revenue wasted on food imports. Cassava will definitely add value to the economy.

Cassava starch is important to many end users. Five per cent of the cattle feed imported by the European Union consists of cassava starch and it provides a tremendous value of revenue monopolised by Thailand. African countries should be able to compete with Thailand. I see a good future for Nigerian cassava, which is a normal product for Nigerians.

How is ‘Cohen & Woods’ and its activities in Africa?
We have two major activities, power generation and affordable housing in collaboration with US companies. Our client, Contour Global, has six private power plants in Africa: Togo, Senegal, Rwanda, and three in Nigeria (Lagos has two and Benin City one).

With respect to affordable housing, our client, GFS Solutions, is building 5,000 homes in Zimbabwe, 10,000 in Côte d’Ivoire, and we are currently negotiating a project for Ghana. We are starting to become interested in for-profit health care. We have a project for a modern clinic in Port Harcourt that awaits financing.

How can it weigh in on the Nigerian situation especially on power generation with tested world class companies?
The Nigerian Government may wish to hire private sector consultants to devise an overall plan for steady expansion of the power network using gas, hydro, and heavy fuel. I see it as a management problem above all. Some people tell me that vested interests in the importation of diesel generators are working against private power expansion. I can believe it.

How has the Corporate Council of Africa of which you are the founding member fared in cementing business relationship between the US and Africa?
CCA is doing a lot of good work especially, in support of the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), which gives African manufactures an advantage in sales to the US. There is still a lot of work to be done in attracting US capital to invest in production facilities in Africa aiming for the US market. The internal environments for private investors in Africa need to be improved, especially for local African entrepreneurs.
Often, African investors are seen as enemies of the power elites, rather than as partners. I will say that Nigeria has one of the best investment environments in Africa, but it is not focusing sufficiently on exports.

Incumbency has always been an advantage. Do you see this playing out in the Nigerian scenario even though President Jonathan lost his second term bid?
For the 2019 election, I believe that Buhari has the strongest domestic support, thanks to the advantages of incumbency. But Atiku is the stronger campaigner with a great deal of name recognition.

What lessons do African presidents can learn from Jonathan?
They need to understand that leaving power with dignity is the surest way to protect your interests. Trying to remain in power indefinitely is a guarantee that a future generation of leaders is likely to look back with bitterness and a desire for revenge.

Was his concession to Buhari a victory for democracy?
Jonathan’s concession to Buhari was absolutely a victory for democracy. He set a major precedent for other countries, including Côte d’Ivoire, Botswana, Namibia, Ghana and Senegal.

What advice do you have for INEC on election rigging?
Elections cannot be rigged without your cooperation. Make sure that the election results at each polling station are made public immediately, and that the transmission of the results to central headquarters are not tampered with. All political parties and candidates should be allowed to witness the process at every step. Once there is secrecy, rigging is considered a sure thing.

President Donald Trump administration has appointed a Special Envoy to the Great Lake. What does this portend?
The Great Lakes countries are strategically important. The Democratic Republic of the Congo is the world’s largest producer of cobalt, a key component of the batteries used in smartphones and electric cars. Rwanda and Burundi, which both suffered terrible genocides, have the capacity to destabilise Uganda, Tanzania and the Congo. If the DRC can have a good transparent election this coming December, it will establish the basis for long term stability. If not, I predict a major violent upheaval.

Can you comment on the qualities of the envoy?
Dr. Peter Pham, director of the Africa Center at the Washington-based Atlantic Council, is one of the most knowledgeable Americans with respect to Africa. I particularly admire his willingness to travel to the hot zones. He spent time in Mogadishu during some of the worst of the terrorist situations. I expect he will not let the three governments get away with cheating on their commitments to have free elections.

How far has your new book gone to re-address the issues raised especially concerning the African big man and those of them who want to die in office, some African leaders from the Great Lake?
My current book: “The Mind of the African Strongman: Conversations with Dictators, Statesmen and Father Figures”, demonstrates that African heads of state often suffer from the “paramount chief” syndrome: “I owe it to my people to stay in power indefinitely.”

My book demonstrates that African heads of state are often prisoners of their ethnic groups or of other minorities, who feel they will lose everything if they leave power. Paul Biya, whose Beti ethnic group makes up only 10% of Cameroonians, feels that if he leaves power, the Beti will suffer greatly. It is a vicious cycle.
“We are in power to favor our ethnic group. If we leave power, our ethnic group will suffer retaliation. We are condemned to stay in power in order to survive.”

I understand you are about to publish. Can you share the preview?
The title is: “Romance and Realpolitik: 75 Years of US Diplomacy in Africa.” It describes the evolution of US policy towards Africa, beginning in the Second World War and ending with President Obama. My own career of 38 years spans most of that period. I found a remarkable consistency among the different administrations.

The key element of US policy toward Africa over the years has been a determination to avoid bringing great power rivalries to the continent and to concentrate instead on economic development. The main frustration has been that most African nations have not enjoyed the type of fast growth demonstrated by Southeast Asian countries.
So, much of US policy has concentrated on new creative methods. President George Bush started PEPFAR for HIV/AIDS and the Millennium Challenge Corporation, and President Obama started Power Africa and Feed the Future. Those who say that the Cold War drove US policy in Africa are totally mistaken.

What’s your advice to emerging politicians in Africa?
Emerging politicians in Africa should keep in mind that half of their populations are under the age of 35. This group will no longer accept minority rule and corrupt regimes. The time for good governance is here.