Who knows Herman Cohen?

Who knows Herman Cohen? I came across his name when I read the report of his testimony before Liberia’s Truth and Reconciliation Committee (TRC) which recently convened in St. Paul, Minnesota, USA.

Herman Cohen was a former Assistant Secretary of State, during the Clinton Administration. He was Under Secretary for African Affairs from 1989 till 1993 and, earlier, Director of African Affairs from 1987 till 1989. He was an important American politician during a crucial period of Liberia’s history.

Herman ‘Hank’ Cohen was testifying on Thursday, June 12, at a public hearing of Liberia’s Truth and Reconciliation Committee on the role of the United States in the conflict in Liberia.

Let me briefly recall the TRC’s origin and mandate. The ‘truth’ committee effectively started its work in 2006. It is an independent body set up to investigate the root causes of the Liberian crisis, document human rights violations, review the history of Liberia, and put all human rights abuses that occurred during the period from 1979 to 2003 on record. The Truth Committee’s mandate is to also identify victims and perpetrators and make recommendations on amnesty, prosecution and reparation.

Yes, indeed, that is no easy mandate!

The astonishing news was that Mr. Cohen said that the US had an understanding with NPFL rebel group leader Charles Taylor to take power following the ‘voluntary’ departure of President Samuel Doe.

We are talking about the first half of 1990. Charles Taylor’s NPFL – composed of Americo-Liberians and Mano and Gio people, and supported by Ivory Coast, Burkina Faso and Libya (see my May 16 posting) – had invaded Liberia on Christmas Eve 1989. There was insignificant resistance of the Armed Forces of Liberia (AFL), loyal to President Doe, and Charles Taylor seemed to be sure of conquering and settling in the Presidential Executive Mansion in Monrovia.
Mr. Cohen said that he initiated discussions with Doe about leaving. The USA would provide the transportation. The understanding with Taylor was that he would take power as soon as Doe departed. After the plan was accepted by President Samuel Doe, Mr. Cohen called President Gnassingbé Eyadéma of Togo, who agreed to provide asylum for the desparate Liberian president. Following President Eyadéma’s consent, Cohen called Taylor on a satellite phone to open corridors for troops loyal to President Doe to allow them to escape through the Liberian-Sierra Leonean frontier. But the plan, he said, was messed up when former Independent National Patriotic Front of Liberia (INPFL) leader Prince Johnson seized control of Bushrod Island, a suburb of Monrovia, and blocked the corridor.

Meanwhile, Mr. Cohen said, when the U.S. was set to send an aircraft to carry out the evacuation, he received a directive from Washington to cease all engagements to end the Liberian conflict. To everybody’s surprise, Ambassador Cohen stated that no further explanations were provided by his superiors in Washington on the change in policy. At that point, he said responsibilities to intervene in the Liberian crisis were passed on to the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS).

That was in mid-1990. We know what subsequently happened. The USA – the Administration of Bush Sr. – gave priority to the First Gulf War (August 1990 – February 1991) and abandoned Liberia, evacuating its citizens without intervening. Then, on September 9, 1990 President Samuel Doe was captured, tortured and killed by Prince Johnson’ s men. The video tape which registered this gruesome act circulated all over West Africa and beyond.

After I had read the report I was flabbergasted for two reasons:

1) A little bit of history: Charles Taylor’s escape from a Massachusetts prison in September 1985 has never been satisfactorily explained. Persistent yet unconfirmed rumours suggested that he might have escaped with connivance of President Ronald Reagan (1981 – 1989) who – becoming increasingly embarrassed with the human rights violations of the Doe regime – wanted to get rid of his former protegé. This ‘theory’ has never been proven, but Mr. Cohen’s testimony indicates close contacts between the US administration and Charles Taylor – a fugitive (!) – although the latter’s whereabouts in North Africa (Libya) and West Africa (Burkina Faso and Ghana) in the late 1980’s as well as his support by Libyan President Muammar Gaddafi are largely unexplained and unknown.

2) The exact role played by Mr. Cohen remains a mystery. It is not commonly known, but Herman ‘Hank’ Cohen is (was) a much wanted lobbyist by African presidents who want(ed) to improve their public image. Most of these African rulers do not or did not have a very positive reputation (human rights violations, corruption). In the 1990s, he was reportedly hired by Burkinabe president Compaore, who had activily supported the December 1989 invasion of his friend Charles Taylor and who also supported Taylor in Sierra Leone. Mr. Cohen also was or had been on the payroll of Angola’s president Dos Santos, Zaïre (Congo), Ivory Coast, and…. Liberia – when ruled by Mr. Charles Taylor (1997 – 2003).
Source: Africa Confidential, May 12, 2000, vol. 41, no. 10, pp.2-6.

The foregoing raises the question: How reliable is mr. Cohen?

The above described lobbying activities are legal in the United States and are registered. One of the most successful lobbying firms in international politics is ‘Cohen and Woods International’. Directors are the former Assistant Secretary of State, Herman ‘Hank’ Cohen, and the former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense, James Woods.

Herman Cohen has been active in ‘special diplomacy’ in many countries: Burkina Faso, Côte d’Ivoire, Togo, Ethiopia, Somalia, Sudan, Rwanda, Zaïre / Democratic Republic of Congo, Mozambique…

Who is Herman Cohen?? Does anybody know???

Please let me know. Liberia needs to know.

Recommended readings:
Africa Confidential, May 12, 2000, vol. 41, no. 10, pp.2-6.
Herman J. Cohen: ‘Intervening in Africa: Superpower Peacemaking in a Troubled Continent’ (Macmillan, 2000).

About Herman Cohen:
Herman Cohen was U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs from 1989-1993 and before that a Senior Director for Africa on the National Security Council Staff. He was U.S. Ambassador to Senegal and Gambia from 1977 to 1980. Ambassador Cohen is president of the consulting firm, Cohen and Woods International, a professorial lecturer at Johns Hopkins University, and author of the book Intervening in Africa: Superpower Peacemaking in a Troubled Continent (Macmillan 2000).

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