Johannesburg - If anyone understands why the US supported African dictators in the Cold War era it is Herman Cohen, who was at the pinnacle of US policy-making on Africa between 1987 and 1993. He was senior director for Africa on the US National Security Council 1987-1989, and US Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs 1989-1993.
Cohen was considered an old-hand on African affairs after being posted as a US diplomat to five African countries during the Cold War.
He went on to advise presidents Ronald Reagan and George HW Bush on Africa policy, and bears some culpability for the decisions taken on Africa during those years.
At the age of 86, Cohen continues to market his book, The Mind of the African Dictator, which was first published three years ago, although former president FW de Klerk was represented at a launch in Cape Town to promote the book last week.
Cohen’s book has been hailed in Western reviews as an insightful account into the minds of African dictators who Cohen engaged with across the continent, from Muammar Gadaffi to Mobutu Sese Seko, and Ibrahim Babangida, to name a few.
But in my lengthy interview with him about his book this week, and the time he spent as the top policy adviser on Africa for many years, I found myself utterly shocked by the rationale put forward for the US support for dictators like Mobutu, at the expense of the development of African countries.
But perhaps more shocking is the lack of introspection, regret, or guilt for America’s role in keeping dictators in power. The worst US policies are justified by the common refrain “all in the context of the Cold War”.
The finger is always pointed outwards, and long lectures given on the need for good governance in Africa today, and the need to curb corruption. But it was US backing for Africa’s grand thieves that entrenched the cancer of corruption on the continent.
Without US guns and money, those dictators would have likely been overthrown by their own people, but it was the US that ensured the longevity of the continent’s worst strongmen, and enabled their continued rape of African countries. The saddest part is that it was for the most flimsy of reasons that the US supported such dictators, without a passing thought for their people or their future.
According to Cohen, the main reason the US supported Mobutu as its strongman for so long was because the US needed to use the airports in the former Zaire in order to supply arms and advisers to the forces of Jonas Savimbi, the rebel leader in the Angolan civil war.
As soon as the Lusaka Peace Accord was signed in 1994 in an attempt to end the Angolan civil war, Cohen says the Americans urged the World Bank not to give Mobutu any further financial assistance - to put it simply, his airports were no longer needed.
According to Cohen, even the World Bank took the view that giving aid to Mobutu became useless once there was no need for his airports.
Cohen admits that for the Americans, the economy of what was then Zaire simply didn’t matter. And why was it that the US felt the overwhelming need to back Savimbi at all costs, which prolonged a brutal civil war that in the end claimed the lives of half a million Angolans and displaced 3.5 million?
Yes, we know it was the Cold War, but what made Savimbi and Unita such a massive priority for the Americans?
Well, according to Cohen, it was all about the Cubans being in Angola. “Cuba was a red flag for all US governments, and nothing else mattered,” Cohen told me.
According to him, US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger saw the intervention of the Cubans in Angola in 1975 like waving a red flag to a bull.
“After the US humiliation in Vietnam in 1973, Kissinger couldn’t handle the Cubans going into Angola and turning the tide of the civil war.”
Backing Savimbi and ensuring the defeat of the Cubans in Angola was seen as a necessary face-saving measure for an American administration that had failed miserably in Vietnam. Saving Savimbi and defeating the Cubans meant Mobutu had to be propped up.
When Mobutu was no longer useful in 1994, and the aid tap dried up, it hastened his demise, which came three years later. By the time Mobutu fled in 1997, he is estimated to have stolen anywhere from $5billion-15bn, and never built a single road or any type of sustainable infrastructure in a country the size of Western Europe.
Can the aging US diplomats at the pinnacle of US policy-making on Africa in those years really so easily absolve themselves from any culpability in such grand theft?
The truth is they made it possible, and they bear a huge responsibility for the state the Democratic Republic of the Congo finds itself in today.
The political cover the US afforded President Joseph Kabila was merely a continuation of age-old policies that have protected African strongmen at the expense of development, justice and human rights. It is almost laughable to read the Western reviews of Cohen’s book, which gush praise for his insights into the minds of Africa’s worst dictators. But nowhere do they question his role or that of the US government in ensuring those dictators stayed in power.
The consequence of US policy was a vicious cycle of corruption and repression that caused many African countries to suffer from negative growth for over two decades.
It is rich coming from Cohen that he now hopes that US presidents will talk more openly about corruption and human rights abuses. He had praised former president Barack Obama for being more inclined than his predecessors towards “tough love” with respect to Africa.
Cohen’s idea of ensuring good governance in Africa today is to strike a deal with the continent’s current strongmen - “Corruption is okay if it is limited to 20% of your country’s GNP (gross national product), but 70% is not okay,” Cohen said. Hardly a recipe for fundamental reform and good governance for the benefit of Africa’s people.
I asked Cohen what he thought about President Donald Trump’s Africa policy, or lack thereof, and his seeming indifference given that two years into his presidency there is still no US ambassador posted to South Africa, and we are expecting a fashion bag designer to fill the job, who is Trump’s friend.
Cohen says he has no problem with Trump’s policy on Africa as it is a good continuation of Bush’s and Obama’s policies.
Basically, the view is that because Trump hasn’t interfered with the funded programmes that previous US presidents initiated, his Africa policy is good.
And as for Africom’s military footprint on the African continent, “the US military are doing a great job doing civic projects like building schools and fighting terrorists in the Sahel.”
What about Trump’s view that African countries are s***holes? “Well, that is what Trump says about everyone; he’s a racist,” Cohen said.
Well if this is the type of insight that guided US policy on Africa for so many years, no wonder such devastation and impoverishment was left in its wake.
* Shannon Ebrahim is Independent Media's foreign editor.