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Recollections of a Former African President

March 24, 2017

Recollections of a Former African President

March 24, 2017

On 24 February 2017, the University of Johannesburg’s (UJ) Institute for Pan-African Thought and Conversation (IPATC) hosted the former president of Ghana, John Mahama, at a roundtable discussion based on his book My First Coup d’état: And Other Stories from the Lost Decades of Africa.

President Mahama was Ghana’s fourth leader of its fourth Republic. He was elected for a four-year term from 2013 to 2017. Preceding the election, he had served as the country’s deputy president between 2009 and 2012, and has since guided his country through a peaceful transition of power. At first glance, the title of the former president’s book may suggest that he is ignorant of the concept of a peaceful transition. However, the book recounts his experiences in Ghana during the country’s first coup d’état in February 1966 which overthrew President Kwame Nkrumah and, during what he calls “the lost decades of Africa” in the 1970s and 1980s. The lost decades, Mahama explained, are those years lost to Ghana due to a “revolving door of unconstitutional governments [that is] dictators taking turns in governing”.

President Mahama began the conversation by reading an extract from his book’s first chapter. A seven-year-old boy, in February 1966, he recalled the streets of Ghana being in commotion and describes the air of “mystery and urgency” that was the context in which he first heard the term “coup d’état”. The idea was accompanied by expressions of euphoria and jubilation, being repeated as though it were a mantra. The concept, being alien to him, sounded as if it were a game played by those older than him, and he could not wait to play this strange game. But once the excitement had died down, President Mahama recalls that it was explained to him that a coup was not a game. Instead, it meant that the government had been overthrown. The President thought the concept to be nonsensical, even at the age of seven, “How can you overthrow an entire government?” he asked himself. 

The politics of Ghana experienced a trauma that would consequentially cause it to lose the next two decades to poor governance and military misrule. Not until 1992 when the nation adopted its first constitution through the election of Jerry Rawlings as president, was civilian rule restored.

“Leave While the Applause Is the Loudest” was the chapter for President Mahama’s next extract in which he interrogated the notion of African leaders holding on to power, and explained this as the reason for the kind of non-democratic, corrupt, and poverty-stricken governments in parts of Africa today. From Zaire’s Mobutu Sese Seko, to Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi, to Uganda’s General Idi Amin, Africa has been bedevilled by those who believe themselves to be the sole answer to the many issues of the continent. As a result, President Mahama noted that African countries are seldom left in a better condition by their rulers. Indeed he noted that, this kind of arrogance and self-reliance, breeds anxiety, paranoia, and an unyielding fear, and observed that the same way that these African leaders came into power, may be the same way that they too are “forcibly removed from power”: through the barrel of the gun, rather than through the ballot box.

The audience was then invited to engage with some of the subjects that President Mahama had raised and other issues around the former president’s tenure in office. A number of questions around African leadership, African vision, and challenges of inequality throughout the continent, as well as education and health care, were tabled for the president’s consideration. It seemed the question of the lack of electricity generation, which had frustrated Mahama’s own presidency, was one which preoccupied some of the audience. This question, alongside the issue of external actors such as China and the US were discussed.

The president’s response to questions of development and inequality prioritised the United Nations (UN) Sustainable Development Goals (SGDs) of 2016. He suggested that the goal of reducing poverty by half and “global targeting” should continue to frame the kinds of issues that African governments should be focused on. Mahama further noted that while electricity has been a crisis in many African countries, this crisis has since stabilised. He argued that Africa should respond to foreign actors such as the US and China with one voice. On the issue of migration and the free movement of capital, President Mahama stated that African states - and South Africa in particular - had forgotten that it was migrants who had helped to develop economies and infrastructure, and supported liberation struggles across Africa. He regarded xenophobia as part of a world-wide phenomenon that is, at times, used by politicians to gain votes and to hold on to power through shallow nationalist and populist rhetoric. 

As published in The Star Newspaper (Page 9 of the March 14, 2017 edition) by Nezo Sobekwa- a Research Assistant at the University of Johannesburg’s Institute for Pan African Thought and Conversation.