In My First Coup D’Etat (Bloomsbury Publishing, London), John Mahama, Ghana’s current president, offers an ambitious account of Africa’s post-independence transformation through the lenses of his personal experiences and those of his native country.
He focuses on the years between the late 1960s and 1980s, a period that has been described as Africa’s “lost decades”, and one that corresponds with the awakening and growth of national consciousness in him. Mahama also writes about African culture and Western influence, about the beauties of the countryside and the joys of family life.
By speaking (in his introduction) of Africa’s “survival” through periods of social, political and economic turmoil, Mahama’s view of the continent’s multiple dilemmas promised to be innovatively upbeat. But by the end of the narrative, this optimism becomes tempered by a note of cynicism expressed by a word in the Akan language of Ghana – “anaa” – which he interprets as an “invitation for doubt”; a word which questions whether we are “progressing or regressing”.
Mahama’s ethnographic sketch of Ghanaian politics since that country’s independence in 1957 is framed around correlating events and changes in different parts of Africa. He thus makes generous references to peoples, places and|happenings in countries as diverse as Nigeria, Libya, Uganda and South Africa. Mahama’s continent-wide historical approach in this book is also symbolic as it serves to recall Ghana’s pioneering role in post-colonial African nationalism as well as in the pan-African movement.
All this is important as it has been argued correctly that each country’s peculiar challenges need to be understood within the wider context of the continent’s shared history and experiences. Which may also be why this edition of the book is “adorned” by endorsements from African scholars – the recently deceased Chinua Achebe, Kenya’s Ngugi wa Thiong’o and Sierra-Leonean Aminatta Forna. Nigeria’s Booker winning author, Ben Okri, also contributes a thoughtful epigraph. (Yet, one might also surmise that Mahama’s position as the sitting vice-president – president by the time of the book’s publication – of one of Africa’s leading democracies could also have played a part in their favourable support.)
The book’s Africanist and historiographic orientations (as laid out in its introductory sections) are innovative and promising – however, its actual narrative content is a bit disappointing. In the first place, the stories tell more about Mahama’s father (to whose memory the book is dedicated), than about the author. Part of Mahama’s central focus, it appears, is the defence and explanation of his father’s wealth and roles (or lack thereof) in Ghana’s politics.
As a senior member of the ruling party and minister in Kwame Nkrumah’s regime, the older Mahama was detained for more than a year with a host of his colleagues following Ghana’s first military coup that sacked Nkrumah’s government in early 1966.
It is this coup that the book (as well as its second chapter) is named after. The author writes how this event, which happened when he was seven, affects his family’s personal circumstances and became a turning point for him. Whether Mahama intends it or not, this applies to the majority of Africans whose lives are more often than not at the mercy of the whims of politics in their respective countries. A change of government – whether or not through “constitutional” means – can transform an individual’s life in most parts of Africa today: it is sometimes the difference between shelter and destitution; between fame and obscurity; between prison and privilege, whether due or undue.
In Mahama’s case, his family’s stability was threatened temporarily in the period after the 1966 coup. In fact, his story of growing up as a child of a former state minister is a story of privilege. He writes of attending elitist schools; of a fleet of cars and chauffeurs; of country homes complete with “boys’ quarters”; of a brother born in England; and of visits from a sitting head of state.
Yes, the reader gets to learn a lot about the author’s father, described – in suspiciously hagiographic terms – as someone who had entered politics because he was “a man of the people”, who “had a pure heart”, and “who lived in service to his family, his people and his nation”. But – as is the case with almost every form of political history – what is left unsaid is sometimes more significant than what is said. Nothing is said about his possible role in Nkrumah’s failed government. Moreover, the author makes no reference to the ways in which his father’s wealth and extensive influence may have contributed to his own ascendancy to political prominence. By the author’s express admission, the senior Mahama was a |successful king-maker.
But why is this point important? It is significant because one of the book’s main themes is that bad governance is responsible for the bulk of Ghana – and Africa’s – numerous woes. Which is why Mahama dwells on the excesses of the Acheampong and Rawlings’ regimes, though conceding that they each did a few things right.
What is problematic, however, is that Mahama seems to conclude that bad governance is an exclusively military phenomenon. About the early post-independent period, he writes: “The post-colonial experiment in nationhood was failing miserably. Many African countries were being dominated by their military.”
Does this mean that the cronyism, ineptitude and corruption so readily identifiable in many democracies worldwide (emerging and established) were absent in Nkrumah’s time and Ghana’s other civilian regimes? Or is this an implicit narrative ploy meant to exonerate his father from any possible indictments for his political involvement at different times?
By far the most conspicuous absence in this book concerns the political ideas of the man who now leads one of Africa’s most respected democracies.
Disappointingly, it also does not develop into any discernible ideological conclusions although he travels to the Soviet Union for further studies.
Thus, beyond what we may call general goodwill, Mahama says nothing concrete about his personal political persuasions and specific visions for his country and Africa.
Perhaps all that is reserved for another story for another day. But with the pressures of the state now on his shoulders, we may not hear too soon again from John Dramani Mahama. - published April 28, 2013.