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US diplomat Herman Cohen reflects on lifelong career linked to Africa

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US diplomat Herman Cohen reflects on lifelong career linked to Africa
Retired US diplomat Herman Cohen in his Washington DC office. (Photo by The Washington Diplomat)

Years ago, Herman Jay “Hank” Cohen, then-assistant US secretary of state for African affairs, was invited to dine with Mobutu Sese Seko, the corrupt despot who ruled Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo), on his lavish river boat. Mobutu, trying to impress the American diplomat, told him he had just received an expensive shipment of pink champagne from Paris.

But Cohen hated pink champagne, so he just asked for a Coke. After much back-and-forth, the deeply insulted Mobutu instructed his butler in French to bring Cohen a Coca-Cola. Then the president turned to Cohen, and in halting English, mockingly declared: “I do not want to violate your human rights.”

Later in his career, the retired diplomat schmoozed half a dozen times in Libya with the country’s strongman Muammar Qaddafi, whom he labeled an “evil genius.” Once he even secretly met Qaddafi at an office building in Tripoli as the self-declared “Dear Leader” was protected by a contingent of heavily armed female bodyguards in high heels.

Those two recollections are among many contained in Cohen’s 2015 memoir, “The Mind of the African Strongman: Conversations With Dictators, Statesmen and Father Figures.” His fourth and newest book, “Africa, You Have a Friend in Washington,” came out in July 2023.

During his lengthy State Department career, Cohen, 91, managed to set foot in every one of Africa’s 54 independent nations except São Tomé e Principe.

One of the most experienced Africa-focused diplomats alive, Cohen—a former presidential advisor and DC resident—has roughly 110,000+ followers on X, formerly Twitter. Over a 38-year career, Cohen forged personal relationships with people from Nelson Mandela to Muhammad Ali. He also helped shape Africa policy from within the State Department.

Now-retired US diplomat Herman Cohen (right) and his wife Suzanne meet Mobutu Sese Seko, then-president of Zaire, and his wife at the White House in 1970. (Courtesy of Herman Cohen)

In a recent interview, the retired diplomat said he had always been curious—even as a boy growing up in a Jewish household in New York City, where his Latvian-born mother and Lithuanian-born father spoke mainly Russian and Yiddish.

“When I was in high school, I enrolled in an honors program specializing in international relations. That’s what got me interested,” Cohen told The Washington Diplomat. “I went to CCNY [City College of New York], but army service was still required. So I graduated as a second lieutenant and was about to be sent to Korea. Just as I was getting on the plane, the Korean War ended—so I went to Germany instead.”

Cohen’s 70-year fascination with Africa endures

As it turned out, Cohen and his army buddies were surrounded by French occupation troops that had been stationed there, along with the Americans, since the end of World War II. Cohen, having learned French at school, was soon interpreting for his fellow men in uniform.

“I had been editor of the college newspaper and thought maybe I could do international journalism as a foreign correspondent,” he said. “In 1954, I passed the Foreign Service exam while still in the army. They called me to Washington to take the oral exam and then asked how soon I could report for duty.”

That career started in Uganda and would eventually take him to Southern Rhodesia (today Zimbabwe), then Zambia, Zaire and finally Senegal, where he was US ambassador in Dakar, with concurrent accreditation to The Gambia.

“My experience there really made my career a good one, because I started out as the regional labor attaché. I was promoted to head of the political section, and then a new ambassador arrived with no experience in Africa. He got an ambassadorship to Mexico and put me in charge,” he said. “They eventually made me director for the Office of Central Africa within the Bureau of African Affairs.”

Cohen said that at present, about 70% of US ambassadors serving overseas are career diplomats.

“But it’s also important to have political ambassadors because they have a strong influence on the party in power,” he said. “Sometimes they want to do irrational things. Both times I had assignments in France, I worked for ambassadors who were political appointees. Whenever we had problems with Washington, these political appointees were able to get back to the secretary of state and talk directly to them.”

Two of Herman J. Cohen’s four published books are “The Mind of the African Strongman” and “Africa, You Have a Friend in Washington.”

During his long career, Cohen went to Ethiopia to negotiate an end to Eritrea’s independence war. He also met Mandela—South Africa’s political prisoner-turned-statesman—as well as F.W. de Klerk, the leader who ended apartheid. He treasures a photo of that de Klerk-Cohen meeting.

“The de Klerk photo was taken in his hotel room in Durban in 1989, where he was campaigning for the presidential election,” Cohen recalled. “It was there that he told me in confidence that after his victory he would release Nelson Mandela, which he did in January 1990.  I transmitted this information to President Bush and Secretary of State [James] Baker. De Klerk was later invited to make an official visit to the US.”

Two years ago, Cohen sold his consulting business, Cohen & Woods International, but continues to speak out about issues of African importance. He’s had a number of recent appearances in French-language media, mostly discussing the desperate situation in Africa’s fragile Sahel region. His two terms of service in France, as well as his deep familiarity with Francophone Africa, have positioned him well for this role.

In mid-October, Cohen gave a virtual lecture at Johns Hopkins University’s Fletcher School. The hour-long discussion with Donald Heflin, former US ambassador to Portuguese-speaking Cabo Verde, focused on topics from Russia’s Wagner Group to French policy on Africa.

Top US-Africa issues: climate change, trade and healthcare

During our interview, Cohen listed the key issues in US-Africa relations are climate change, trade and healthcare. While Africa as a whole bears more of the consequences of a warming planet than it’s responsible for, it does contribute to the problem through the burning of charcoal.

“In northwestern Africa, on the border between Mauritius and Senegal is the largest offshore gas deposit in the world,” he said. “International companies are transforming a lot of that into LNG [liquefied natural gas]. That should be used for cooking, not charcoal.”

Climate change is largely responsible for a crippling drought that has devastated the Sahel region, which has led to political instability and widespread suffering.

“Africa should not be ignored,” he said. “They provide so many commodities for the rest of the world that can’t be provided by anyone else.”

For example, Mali produces some of the world’s highest-quality cotton, which is crucial to Europe’s textile industry. A much bigger example is Niger, a leading exporter of uranium.

“Most of this uranium goes to France, which many years ago decided that its electric grid would be totally powered by nuclear energy,” he said. “They need this uranium to keep the electricity flowing. So it’s important that Niger not have any revolutions that would interrupt the supply.”

 

Now-retired US diplomat Herman Cohen (right) meets future South African President F.W. de Klerk at a Durban hotel room in 1989. The following year, de Klerk freed Nelson Mandela from prison; the two men jointly received the 1993 Nobel Peace Prize. De Klerk died in November 2021. (Photo courtesy of Herman Cohen)

Similarly, Zimbabwe cultivates high-quality maize, which is essential to consumers in South Africa. And Congo is a key producer of coltan, a dull black metallic ore whose byproducts are needed for mobile phones, personal computers, automotive electronics and cameras.

“Overall stability is required for Africa to be productive, but corruption is the main reason for high poverty rates,” he said. “They make money selling things, but where does that money go? You have minority political elites which keep that money. They don’t invest it in programs to alleviate poverty in their own countries.”

Uganda removed from AGOA after passing harsh anti-gay legislation

Cohen is a strong supporter of two US government programs that have both had their share of critics.

The first is the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), a trade preference program that provides eligible sub-Saharan African countries duty-free access to the US market for over 1,800 products. It requires countries to meet eligibility criteria such as market-based economy, rule of law, political pluralism, and human rights. At present, 32 countries are eligible for benefits under AGOA, which has been extended to 2025.

The top exporters of AGOA products to the US market are South Africa ($3.62 billion); Nigeria ($3.52 billion); Ghana ($746 million); Kenya ($615 million) and Madagascar ($407 million), according to the US Trade Representative’s Office. But the Council on Foreign Relations says “many experts say the program has failed to live up to expectations. After an initial rise in trade, the region’s exports to the United States have stagnated.”

Ambassador Herman Jay “Hank” Cohen, 91, has been to all of Africa’s 54 independent nations except São Tomé e Principe.

Late last year, the White House removed Uganda and the Central African Republic from AGOA after the enactment of laws criminalizing homosexuality. Niger and Gabon were also taken off the list since they are both under military rule following coups and are therefore ineligible.

In a Dec. 29 letter announcing the decision, Biden said Uganda “has engaged in gross violations of internationally recognized human rights” following that country’s passage of one of the world’s most extreme anti-LGBTQ laws.

Derided as the “Kill the Gays” law by LGBTQ Nation, it says “aggravated homosexuality” is punishable by the death penalty. It also imposes a life sentence for “recruitment, promotion and funding” of same-sex “activities” and even bans identifying as LGBTQ+.

This decision could cost Uganda thousands of jobs, given that more than 80% of its exports under AGOA were from the agricultural sector, which employs 72% of Ugandans. In the 12-month period ending June 2023, Uganda’s AGOA exports to the United States came to $8.2 million, or 11.5% of total US-bound exports.

Nevertheless, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni—in power for 38 years—appears unfazed and suggests that Biden has no right to lecture other countries. Cohen disagrees.

“We do not accept that Uganda has the death penalty for homosexual activity,” he said. “We do lecture them, and of course we should. I think Congress would want us to do that. The American public would want us to do that.”

US abortion foes try to sabotage successful HIV program

The second program Cohen strongly supports is the US President’s Action Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR).

Since PEPFAR’s inception by President George W. Bush in 2003, the US government has invested $110 billion in the global HIV/AIDS response. According to a fact sheet, “PEPFAR is the largest commitment by any nation to address a single disease in history, enabled by strong bipartisan support across 10 US congresses and four presidential administrations, and through the American people’s generosity.”

Retired US diplomat Herman Cohen in his Washington DC office. (Photo by The Washington Diplomat)

Yet House Republicans in Congress are now pushing to ban PEPFAR from partnering with foreign aid groups that, according to NPR, “with their own non-US money lobby for abortion rights or provide abortions, referrals or information about it.”

And Cohen says that’s unconscionable.

“PEPFAR has saved tens of millions of lives in Africa, and it’s very important that people who have HIV continue to get the medicine they need,” he said. “It would be a tragedy to get rid of PEPFAR, so I don’t know why anybody would want to eliminate it. I don’t think Congress would allow that.”

Asked to name Africa’s leading success stories, Cohen rattled them off quickly: Cote d’Ivoire, Ghana, Nigeria, South Africa and Botswana.

What about the Addis Ababa-based African Union, which marked its 60th anniversary last year?

“The AU is very important because they intervene when there is instability,” he replied. “They are doing the work that normally the United Nations would do. I consider them an extremely important organization. They’re doing a great job.”

As for sage advice, Cohen says it’s important to become fluent in a language other than English.

“I was the State Department’s first-ever student of Swahili—and I used it,” he said. “Learn a language, but also do not become enamored of the country you’re in, otherwise known as ‘going local.’ Do not do that. It ruins your ability to do business. Be dispassionate.”

He added: “Ask lots of questions. I spent most of my time asking questions. That’s how you learn what’s going on. The CIA also asks questions, but they pay for the information.”

Larry Luxner

Miami native Larry Luxner, a veteran journalist and photographer, has reported from more than 100 countries in Latin America, Africa, Eastern Europe, the Middle East and Asia for a variety of news outlets. He lived for many years in San Juan, Puerto Rico, and the Washington, D.C., area before relocating to Israel in January 2017. Larry has been news editor of The Washington Diplomat since 2005.