The late President Félix Houphouët-Boigny of Côte d’Ivoire (Ivory Coast) did not look like a “strong man.” He was small of stature, and he spoke softly. Nevertheless, during his 33 years as head of state (1961–1994) he was one of Africa’s most powerful leaders. He brought prosperity to his farmers and interfered in the internal affairs of his neighbors, often with deadly results. President Houphouët-Boigny is one of Africa’s founding fathers profiled in detail by former Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Herman J. Cohen. It is through the one-on-one conversations Cohen had with these leaders that we come to understand why Africa has lagged behind the rest of the world since the end of colonialism a half-century ago. His account of these conversations provides a road map for U.S. policy toward Africa in the twenty-first century.
Cohen discusses key events in the region, including the Angolan Civil War (November 1975 – April 2002); the (temporarily effective) peacekeeping efforts moderated by Mobutu between Angolan President Jose Eduardo dos Santos and pro-West insurgency leader Jonas Savimbi; and the Ivory Coast’s involvement in the first Liberian Civil War (1989-1996), which Houphouët-Boigny had instigated. Cohen’s close dealings with a number of leaders in West and Central Africa inspired him to write The Mind of the African Strongman: Conversations with Dictators, Statesmen, and Father Figures, published in May 2015 as a part of the ADST-DACOR Diplomats and Diplomacy Book Series.
Read more on the negotiations to end the civil war in Angola. Read other Moments on Africa.
“A roly-poly little guy” and one of the most powerful men in Africa
COHEN: Unlike many other African leaders who began their lives in modest circumstances, Félix Houphouët-Boigny was born into a family of African chiefs and wealthy plantation owners in Côte d’Ivoire. When he entered politics in the early 1950s, he was an affluent person who spent a lot of time in Paris involved in the politics of independence from French rule…. At the time of independence, he was the clear popular choice to be the country’s first elected president….
As head of state in francophone Africa’s wealthiest country, he exerted significant influence in the neighboring francophone countries, so much so that he initiated profound political changes in his region. His most important initiative was the overthrow by insurgents of Liberia’s president Samuel Doe in 1990. He was also a sponsor and mentor of the Angolan rebel leader Jonas Savimbi. In view of France’s many private investments in Côte d’Ivoire, Houphouët exercised much influence in French policy toward francophone Africa. After Houphouët’s death in 1994, Côte d’Ivoire began a long slow decline into political instability and civil war that lasted until 2012.
I did not have the pleasure of engaging in dialogue with the founding president of Côte d’Ivoire until we were both in the final years of our respective careers. The first time I actually met him was in January 1987 when I accompanied Secretary of State George Shultz on a tour of key African nations. I was representing the National Security Council, where I was Senior Director for Africa and Special Assistant to President Reagan. At that time, President Houphouët and I were both seven years away from career end. In 1994, I left the State Department for a new job, and he passed away that same year.
At age 87, Houphouët was a roly-poly little guy whose feet barely reached the floor as he sat facing Shultz and the U.S. delegation. Little in his appearance indicated that he was one of the most powerful heads of state in Africa. Nevertheless, I found Houphouët’s discourse at that meeting with Shultz quite refreshing compared to what I had been hearing in other African capitals….
I started seeing Houphouët regularly between 1988 and 1994 to discuss problems related to the West and Central African regions. It was during these meetings that I learned of his intense interest in dabbling in other countries’ affairs. Indeed, he was a master manipulator and destabilizer, but so low key as to be virtually invisible. One of his most important interests was in the former Portuguese colony of Angola in southwest Africa.
Angola as Proxy War
The civil war in Angola was of great interest to the United States. It was not just the fact that a Marxist regime was fighting an insurgency representing a “pro-West” rebel group. Above all, it was the presence of 35,000 Cuban troops sent there by President Fidel Castro to keep his friends in power. When Portugal had its internal revolution in 1974, Angola was given immediate independence with virtually no preparation. The anti-Portuguese rebel groups immediately started battling each other for control of power.
The Cuban president saw his opportunity to make a splash on the international scene. He sent an expeditionary force to Angola that was instrumental in bringing the MPLA [People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola] Marxists to power. But the internal war continued, with the “pro-West” insurgents, known as UNITA [National Union for the Total Independence of Angola], controlling a significant area in southeastern Angola. Ironically, one of the important missions of the Cuban force was to guard the oil installations of the American company Chevron against insurgent attacks.
In 1986, President Ronald Reagan announced his doctrine designed to counter Soviet assistance to revolutionary groups anywhere in the world. Because of the Cuban military presence in Angola, Reagan proposed a special covert action program to provide assistance to the UNITA insurgents against the Marxist regime. The program was modest but sufficient to help UNITA protect itself against Soviet-supplied bomber aircraft and armor.
Houphouët entered the Angola picture because he was the mentor of UNITA president Jonas Savimbi, a charismatic personality popular with conservatives in the United States in both political parties. In view of the high priority the White House assigned to support for Savimbi, I considered it important to maintain regular contact with Savimbi. The place I met with him the most often was in the home of President Houphouët-Boigny in Abidjan.
Houphouët liked to guide the discussion. Savimbi and I were discussing the state of U.S. assistance and Savimbi’s efforts to achieve recognition from other African countries. Houphouët did not leave us alone to develop our strategies. He was there to preside, putting in his two cents quite often. In short, while the rest of Africa had recognized the MPLA as the legitimate government of Angola, Houphouët, and his colleague Léopold Senghor in Senegal, had decided to support Savimbi. Houphouët’s support was clearly the most significant.
While the United States was providing defensive shoulder-fired antiaircraft missiles and antitank weapons to UNITA, Houphouët was providing money-laundering services. Savimbi had a permanent agent in Abidjan who received diamonds from Savimbi’s couriers. The diamonds were taken from Angolan fields during UNITA raids and exported as Ivoirien commodities.
My conversations with Houphouët on the Angola issue were in the co-conspiracy mode. It was Houphouët and Cohen trying to remake Angola. He loved it.
During my visits, Houphouët also enjoyed bantering about African matters in general, especially gossip about other heads of state. During one visit in August 1989, I mentioned that I had just been in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, a week earlier. I told him that I had found Addis rainy, cold, and dull, and President Mengistu a cold fish. I could not imagine any of the hundreds of African diplomats stationed there being happy.
His response was, “You can say that again. When we heads of state were debating the headquarters’ location of the Organization of African Unity, I was the one who recommended Addis. It was the biggest mistake of my presidency.”
Negotiating Peace in Angola
In 1989, after the New York agreement of December 1988 had resulted in the departure of Cuban and South African troops from Angola, we turned to the task of encouraging internal peace in Angola. We had no intention of helping UNITA defeat the government of Angola and no possibility of matching the Soviet’s massive military assistance to the regime. On the other hand, our assistance to UNITA made it impossible for the regime to defeat the insurgents. Hence, it was a mutually hurting stalemate ripe for resolution.
Our approach was to suggest to Angola’s neighbors that they organize a peace process. America’s good friend, President Mobutu of Zaire with visions of the Nobel Prize in his head, decided to organize a summit conference in his hometown of Gbadolite, with a large number of African heads of state in attendance. Savimbi was reluctant to attend. He did not want to be intimidated into something he might not want under the pressure of all those heads of state.
I thought the summit a good idea because it was the only game in town. I called Houphouët, who expressed skepticism but agreed that Savimbi should not turn down the request. He agreed to “recommend” that Savimbi show up for the conclave, and Savimbi complied.
The summit meeting ended with a signed “agreement” between Angolan president Dos Santos and Savimbi [pictured] in which UNITA would win recognition as a political party, and UNITA leaders would enter the government as ministers. The Marxist constitution would remain intact.
Savimbi signed the agreement but absolutely did not agree with it. He wanted a “free and fair” election. I wanted to encourage Savimbi to accept –– that was about as good as he could expect since he could not win the war. Before I could act, Savimbi’s friends in the U.S. conservative community called Secretary of State James Baker, who instructed me to issue a statement saying that anything less than a free and fair election would be unacceptable.
I called Houphouët, who confirmed that the agreement was dead on arrival. Houphouët’s influence on Savimbi was clearly quite strong, and therefore also his ability to influence U.S. policy. International observers of the Angolan war knew about Soviet support for the regime and American and South African support for UNITA, but Houphouët’s significant role was virtually unknown. He preferred it that way.
Dealing with immigrant workers
While Houphouët’s interest in Angola was geostrategic and ideological, more practical was his interest in his northern neighbor, Burkina Faso. Côte d’Ivoire’s wealth comes from its position as the world’s largest producer of cocoa. Care, feeding, and harvesting of the cocoa tree is heavily labor-intensive. In Côte d’Ivoire, plantation labor is made up mainly of immigrants from Burkina Faso (formerly Upper Volta). Known as “Burkinabe,” these immigrant workers and their families make up about 30 percent of the country’s population.
The plantation workers are not temporary visitors. Most of the families have been in Côte d’Ivoire for generations and thereby constitute a major internal political challenge. Give them full political rights and the entire political balance of the nation would be totally transformed. Above all, the elites of Houphouët’s own subregion in the territory of the Baoulé nation could lose their domination of political power.
Houphouët dealt with the problem of immigrant families with finesse. He reasoned that as long as he was alive, he would have no significant opposition. He was supremely popular among both the Ivoirien people and the Burkinabe immigrant population. The only political dissidents who refused to be co-opted into his political family were centered in the University of Côte d’Ivoire, where the faculty constituted a left-wing intellectual opposition to his emphasis on free market capitalism.
Houphouët’s solution to the immigrant problem was to allow them to vote in presidential elections. Needless to say, he was overwhelmingly reelected every five years. With the right to vote, Houphouët reasoned, the Burkinabe immigrants would feel integrated, even though they really were not, because they were not citizens.
Against the background of Côte d’Ivoire’s heavy dependence on immigrant labor, Houphouët needed to keep an eye on his northern neighbor Burkina Faso to make sure that the government there remained friendly and stable.
Intervening in Burkina Faso
In the early years of the 1980s, Burkina was mainly unstable and less than friendly. During most of the 1970s, a series of military coups had made the government look like a game of musical chairs.
In 1983, Houphouët decided to intervene in his own subtle way. He financed an army coup led by Captains Thomas Sankara and Blaise Compaore [pictured]. Sankara became the head of state, and Compaore the vice president. Unfortunately for Houphouët, Sankara turned out to be a revolutionary hothead who believed that all of the other heads of state in West Africa were corrupt reactionaries. He traveled all over the region, preaching revolution and scaring some of Houphouët’s good friends.
During one of my visits in 1987 to discuss Angola, I chided Houphouët about his selection of Sankara to take over power in Burkina. I accused Sankara of trying to destabilize the entire region of West Africa. Houphouët dismissed my concerns with the flippant remark, “Don’t worry, Sankara is just a boy. He will mature quickly.”
Since we were alone, I insisted that Sankara was hurting the image of the entire French community in West Africa and would eventually hurt Houphouët himself. He took my admonition in without comment; but within a few months, Sankara was violently replaced by Blaise Compaore, who restored political stability to the francophone subregion. Compaore and Houphouët worked so well together that Compaore essentially replaced Houphouët as the dean of French West Africa after Houphouët’s death in 1994.
Immediately after my 1987 discussion with Houphouët, I flew up to Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso, to check things out there. The day of my visit had been declared a holiday because it was the first anniversary of President Reagan’s bombing of Libya. Sankara, a great admirer of Gaddafi, had signs hung all over the city denouncing U.S. imperialism. When he talked revolution, therefore, Sankara was using Gaddafi as a role model.
Sankara was too busy to see me, but I had a chance to meet Vice President Blaise Compaore for the first time. He received me in army fatigues, a visible pistol in a holster, and with an aggressively negative view of American policy in Africa. I had the feeling that this was not what Houphouët had bargained for. Fortunately, Blaise Compaore turned out to be a reasonable and pragmatic leader after he deposed Sankara. But in selecting him, Houphouët had sown the seeds of Côte d’Ivoire’s civil war, which began in 1999, five years after his death, and lasted for twelve agonizing years.
A Coup in Liberia
Houphouët’s last foreign intervention before his death took place in Liberia, right next door. He was a close friend of the late Liberian president William R. Tolbert, whose son had married Houphouët’s goddaughter. Much like Houphouët, Tolbert [pictured with Houphouët] came from an aristocratic minority, in his case the Americo-Liberians, those descended from the original freed slaves who came to Liberia from the United States, starting in the 1820s. Tolbert was assassinated in a military coup in April 1980.
Not only did Houphouët suffer the shock of his good friend’s assassination in cold blood; he had to witness the rise to power of a bunch of illiterate Liberian army enlisted men led by one Sergeant Samuel Doe. The crowning blow came from the violation of the French ambassador’s residence in Monrovia, where Tolbert’s son had taken refuge. Some of Doe’s officers forced their way into the ambassador’s house, took Tolbert’s son prisoner, and summarily executed him. Houphouët never forgot that. He took his revenge ten years later.
On Christmas Eve 1989, a group of about 200 guerrilla fighters crossed the border from Côte d’Ivoire into Liberia and began an insurgency designed to overthrow President Doe. The insurgency was promoted and financed by Houphouët, supported logistically by Burkina president Compaore, and supplied by Libyan “leader” Muammar Gaddafi. The guerrillas marched toward the capital city of Monrovia, picking up additional fighters along the way, as President Doe’s army responded with the burning of villages and the perpetration of massive human rights atrocities.
The guerrillas were under the command of Charles Taylor, a former high official in Doe’s regime who had been trained in guerrilla tactics in Libya. Taylor’s forces were able to arrive at the gates of Monrovia in about six weeks. Much to Houphouët’s chagrin, some of the leaders of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), of which Côte d’Ivoire was a member, wanted to intervene to stop a Taylor takeover. In an ECOWAS summit meeting designed to reach consensus on what, if anything, to do about Liberia, Côte d’Ivoire and Burkina Faso passionately argued against any intervention. Their man Charles Taylor was doing very well, thank you.
Burkina and Côte d’Ivoire’s joint veto should normally have prevented an ECOWAS intervention, because decisions to take such actions had to be unanimous. But Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Guinea, and Ghana decided to move ahead without consensus and sent a military force to Liberia to block Taylor from taking over. The force was called ECOMOG and had as its mission to establish peace and a democratic transition. But Charles Taylor refused to accept West African peacekeeping and brought ECOMOG under heavy artillery fire. This was the beginning of Liberia’s destructive seven-year civil war between Taylor and ECOMOG.
In the State Department, our instructions were to refrain from diplomatic intervention. We were told not to “take charge” of the Liberian problem. In August 1990, I was instructed to do a tour of the countries involved in the war, with a stop at the U.S. Embassy in Monrovia, to demonstrate that we were not totally disinterested. While we decided to be inactive, we needed to demonstrate sympathetic interest in Liberia’s troubles. That country, after all, was our most reliable friend in Africa.
Needless to say, an important stop on my itinerary was Abidjan for a conversation with Houphouët. I asked him what he could tell me about Taylor’s insurgency. As Taylor’s supplies and reinforcements were transiting Côte d’Ivoire, Houphouët’s position was crucial.
Houphouët’s response reinforced his image as the éminence grise who did his dirty work from deep behind the scenes. He knew that I knew about his heavy support for Taylor. Ivoirien security forces were transporting Libyan arms from Ouagadougou to Taylor’s lines through Côte d’Ivoire. Yet, his poker face was unchanging. He said, “I have never met Charles Taylor. I do not know Charles Taylor. I have nothing to do with Charles Taylor.”
Ignoring his lies, I pleaded with Houphouët to use his position as the region’s senior statesman to try to bring about peace between Taylor and ECOMOG so that Liberia could move ahead with a democratic political process. Houphouët had received a request from the United States that he could not refuse. He thus proceeded to call a summit conference of all protagonists.
The conference took place and achieved nothing, but Houphouët had covered his tracks. Two years later, during an international conference in Abidjan, I asked Burkina president Blaise Compaore why he and Houphouët had decided to sponsor Taylor’s insurgency. The war was in its second year at that moment, and Liberia was in a state of total collapse. Liberia had become a humanitarian disaster. Compaore said, in all sincerity, that he and Houphouët considered Samuel Doe a disgrace to Liberia and to the entire region. I agreed with his assessment. He then acknowledged, however, that Taylor was a bad choice, and that he was destroying Liberia.
I responded with a question. “Will you now stop supplying Taylor with arms in order to pressure him into peace talks with ECOMOG?”
Compaore said “Yes.”
Unfortunately, his assistance to Taylor continued for five more years. His and Houphouët’s investment in Taylor was too large to stop at that point. They had to see it through to victory.
A Clash on Devaluing the Currency
Among the many sectors that Houphouët reserved for himself was control over francophone Africa’s money. During the colonial period, the French administration had established a common currency for its African colonies, the CFA Franc, meaning “common francophone African” franc. Tied to the French franc and totally guaranteed by the French Treasury, the CFA was considered a hard currency.
Toward 1989 and through the early part of the 1990s, at a rate of 50 CFA to one French franc, it was clear that the CFA was much overvalued. This was hurting the economies of the twelve African countries involved. Imports were too cheap, thereby encouraging excessive unneeded imports by urban populations. Exports, especially agricultural products, were not earning sufficient local currency to give the farmers a decent living. Government budgets were strained because of the low flow of local currency revenue.
Around 1991, economists, especially those at the World Bank, were starting to call for a devaluation of the CFA franc to a more realistic level. Unfortunately, both Houphouët and the French Treasury considered that a bad idea. Houphouët wanted the urban elites to continue to be able to purchase imported products from Europe.
The French government at the time had managed to stabilize the value of the French franc and did not want to do anything that might undermine it. My own feeling then was that the French really had no objection to devaluing, but were afraid to go against Houphouët.
During 1991, when I was traveling through Paris on my way home from one of my frequent trips to Africa, the press section of the American embassy in Paris asked if I would preside over a luncheon debate with journalists specializing in African issues. The group was rather sizable, representing both French and African media. The format called for me to give a short summary of U.S. policy in Africa and then take questions from the journalists, on the record.
Toward the end, a French journalist asked how the United States government regarded the ongoing debate about the exchange rate of the CFA franc. Showing strong feelings, I said that African economies were hurting badly because of the serious overvaluation of the CFA. I called for a major devaluation. I was speaking not just for State’s Bureau of African Affairs, but for the U.S. Treasury Department and Secretary of State James Baker, who had spoken about the CFA on several occasions.
It must have been a slow news day because the newspapers gave my statement significant coverage. When I arrived in Washington the next day, I saw a message from the French Minister of Finance to the U.S. Secretary of the Treasury denouncing my on-the-record statement to the French and African press. He called my statement an unacceptable interference in France’s internal affairs and my analysis of the economic situation in francophone Africa not accurate.
On the other hand, I received phone calls from Secretary Baker’s office and my friends in the Treasury’s Office of African Nations congratulating me. A week later, the French Minister of Overseas Cooperation came to Washington to meet with the World Bank and USAID. The French ambassador asked me to meet the Minister for breakfast. The Minister continued to admonish me for my statement to the point where I promised not to say anything more on the subject in public.
Houphouët said nothing to me about the CFA issue, but I was sure he was behind the French reaction. A devaluation of the CFA would have been a big blow to his ego. After his 1994 death, I was working at the Global Coalition for Africa, housed in the World Bank. One afternoon, as I was walking in the hall, the World Bank Vice President for Africa, Kim Jaycox, saw me and called me into his office suite.
Champagne corks were popping. What was the occasion? The French Treasury had just announced the devaluation of the CFA from 50 CFA for one French Franc to 100 to one. Shortly thereafter, when I visited Houphouët’s successor in Abidjan, Henri Konan Bédié, I asked him how much of the additional local currency generated by the devaluation would be going to the farmers. He said, “Two hundred percent.” In other words, he claimed that the double amount of local currency would all go to the farmers. I did not believe it, because a sizable percentage of farm export earnings were secretly diverted to finance the ruling political party. But I was sure that the farmers would be doing better in any event.
Leaving Behind Hollow Promises … and a Civil War
In 1991, I had a visit in Washington from a high Ivoirien official in town for talks with the World Bank. He asked to see me to deliver a message from Houphouët. He said that Houphouët was planning to run for reelection in 1992. However, he would announce his retirement in 1993 after serving only one year. In addition, Houphouët had designated my visitor to be his successor. I expressed satisfaction, because my visitor was considered one of the most capable of the Ivoirien officials.
As it happened, Houphouët did run for reelection in 1992. He won, of course, but did not announce his retirement in 1993 as my earlier visitor had predicted. He just carried on. In those final months prior to his death, when his health was clearly failing and he was absent for long periods, I saw him several times in Paris. During one visit, he told me that he was staying away from Abidjan for lengthy periods in order to test the younger leaders and determine if they were up to the job.
When Houphouët died in 1994, the person who thought he had been designated as the successor found himself in the wrong position. The constitution designated the President of the National Assembly to be the successor to serve until the next election.
The constitutional successor was sworn in, but the disappointed aspirant began a process, supported by President Compaore of Burkina Faso, to destabilize the political system, leading to a twelve-year civil conflict and a greatly weakened Côte d’Ivoire.
When I told some of my Ivoirien friends the story of the official who had told me that Houphouët had sincerely promised that he would be his successor, they informed me that Houphouët undoubtedly made the same promise to at least ten politicians working in his government.