The Mind of the African Strongman: Conversations With Dictators, Statesmen, and Father Figures

Cohen, a veteran U.S. Foreign Service officer who became assistant secretary of state for African affairs in the George H. W. Bush administration, has written a book of vignettes about the 16 African heads of state with whom he had personal contact during his long career. Many of his portraits are unflattering, but Cohen is capable of real empathy, even when he is quite aware of a leader’s failings. An amusing set of anecdotes about President Léopold Sédar Senghor of Senegal—including one revolving around an improbable meal shared by Cohen, Senghor, and the American boxer Muhammad Ali—ends with the observation that Senghor was largely ignorant of the Senegalese countryside and did little to improve the welfare of his rural countrymen. Particularly interesting portraits emerge of Muammar al-Qaddafi of Libya, Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe, and Mobutu Sese Seko of Zaire. Diplomatic historians will value the book’s substantive details. Other readers will be tickled by some of Cohen’s revelations: he reports, among other things, that Mobutu’s favorite ride at Disneyland, which the dictator visited in 1970, was one that featured an imitation Congo River, replete with electronic crocodiles.

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