Thank you, Aly Khan Satchu for the invitation to speak, and for that gracious introduction.
It is a real pleasure and an honour to be here in Nairobi with all of you today. I am grateful for the opportunity to share some thoughts on democracy in general, and democracy in our beloved Africa in particular. I would like to begin by telling you a story. It’s a story that I have told many times in my life and have even written about. It’s about an event that took place several decades ago yet despite the many
times that I have told the story, it somehow feels more urgent and relevant now. My father, the late Mr. E.A. Mahama, was a Member of Parliament and a Minister in the government of Dr. Kwame Nkrumah, Ghana’s first president. In February of 1966 when that government was overthrown in a coup d’etat, my father was placed in detention, where he would be kept for the greater part of a year. I was seven years old.
After my dad’s release, he tried to stay as far away from politics as possible. He devoted his time to being a farmer and a father. Like so many African nations during that time, Ghana had begun what would turn into a cycle of coups that ushered in one military dictator after another. My dad was a fierce believer in democracy. He had tremendous disdain for dictators. But more than any of that, he loved his country and he wanted Ghana to succeed. In 1972 when Colonel Ignatius Kutu Acheampong came into power as a result of a coup d’etat, he introduced some radical policies, most notably the one he devised to deal with Ghana’s enormous national debt- “Yentua”, which, translated from Akan, means “we won’t pay.” Another policy introduced by Col. Acheampong was “Operation Feed Yourself,” which encouraged Ghanaians to grow what they consumed. It was highly successful, not least of all because it increased morale and fostered a 00sense of national pride.
There were a number of other successful policies all implemented under the umbrella of seven fundamental governing principles, the first of which was that Ghanaians were “one people”, “one country,” “one heritage,” “one destiny.” My father, like so many other Ghanaians, was impressed. Despite the fact that Col. Acheampong was a coup-maker, my father was hopeful that unlike a typical coup-maker, he might have Ghana’s best interest at heart instead of his own. In fact, my father was so impressed and hopeful that he sat down and wrote Col. Acheampong a letter telling him exactly that. In that letter, my father also decided to dispense a bit of political wisdom; he advised Col. Acheampong to remember to “leave when the applause is loudest.” It took almost no time at all after my father had sent that letter for the military officers to arrive at our home and carry him off to the barracks for interrogation and possible detainment. Somehow that little piece of advice he’d given had been interpreted as a possible threat. He was not formally detained, but in that experience he learned an indispensible lesson about democracy—a lesson he made sure to pass on to me. Democracy is non-negotiable. Certainly all democracies are not alike. It is not a one-size-fits-all system. Nevertheless, regardless of the form that it takes, each democracy, at its core, is a system of governance that is fueled by the will of the people.
I began by saying that I felt this story of my father and the letter he wrote, and the subsequent lesson that he taught me about democracy, was especially relevant now. I wish to explain. In December, elections were held in Ghana. I had served for four years as President and was seeking re-election. It was a long and hard-fought contest, at the end of which the people of Ghana had their say by way of the ballot. During the course of the campaign that led up to the elections there was one question I was asked a number of times that always took me bristle: “If you do not win, will you concede?"
Obviously, each time my answer was “yes,” but I was always left a bit perplexed because what other answer was there to give? Imagine my surprise when around the same time period that I was being routinely asked that question, I watched the final debate of the United States
presidential campaign and the same question was posed to the candidates. One said, “Yes,” and the other said, “I will look at it at the time.”
Africa’s relationship with democracy has been a rocky one. Some have even argued that African societies, many of which, prior to colonialism, were once feudal are not traditionally ideal for a democratic form of governance. On its surface, that theory might have seemed credible immediately following the wave of independence that swept through continent when our nations were being ruled by the likes of Idi Amin and Mobutu Sese Seko. These were not rulers who cared about applause. They were rulers who had no intentions of ever leaving and relinquishing power. And, more important, they were rulers who had little, if any, consideration for the citizens of their countries. And the continent suffered as a result. We lost many of our intellectuals, our artistes, our doctors, our engineers, our poets, our scientists, our innovators of technology. Economies were crippled by mass corruption and the significant loss of human resource; so much so that many families, societies and nations were kept afloat by the remittances being sent by citizens in the Diaspora. That period of time is known as the lost decades. They were dismal times, and they seemed never-ending. But then something shifted. Progress started taking place. It happened gradually, over a period of time. So gradually in fact that when the world finally took notice, it had already gained momentum and so this progress was made to seem sudden, almost meteoric. “Africa Rising,” it was labeled, and it was treated as a phenomenon.
From seemingly out of nowhere several African countries were among the top ten fastest growing economies in the world. Not only were Africans who’d been living in the Diaspora returning home, Westerners were relocating to the continent as well to take advantage of the
bourgeoning business opportunities in all fields. I.T., Communications and Service Industries were expanding at a rapid pace. African literature, film, and art were experiencing an international renaissance. In my capacity as Vice President and then as President, I attended several conferences with the theme “Africa Rising.” The focus of most of these conferences was, as you might imagine, primarily economic, and the substance of the discussions at these conferences was, more often than not, how and where these shifts were taking place on the
African continent, and what the implications were for the rest of the world. There was rarely any talk of why. Why were these shifts happening? What was at the root of this undeniable progress? The rest of the world has often held a strictly binary view of Africa: we are
either failing or we are succeeding, rising to great heights or falling to the lowest depths of destitution, disease and societal dysfunction.
Rarely are we afforded the full range of motion that growth experiences that nation-building requires. So it is important to stop and investigate the reasons why this progress that was labeled “Africa Rising” started taking place. What inspired it?
It is my belief that the more we investigate the reasons for all the promise of prosperity that now exists before us as a continent what we will find is that at least one of those reasons is the spread of democracy. Today, majority of African countries hold democratic elections. There are at least 25 of the 54 countries that hold elections regularly that are widely determined to be free and fair.
Even the countries whose political situations are regarded with skepticism, the countries whose democracies are not considered mature because of the dominance of one political party or because a single president has ruled for decades—even those countries are holding elections. Though, to be fair, the transparency and fairness of those elections are highly doubtful. But it is a beginning, a point of entry into a process that will eventually give way to the rule of law. How do I know this? Because we have all been there before, nearly each and
every one of the countries on this continent. Let’s take, for example, recent events in the Gambia, a country that has, for years, been inching its way into democracy. On the 1st of December 2016, elections were held in The Gambia. President Yahya Jammeh who came to power in 1994 as the result of a coup d’etat, was defeated by opposition candidate Adama Barrow. This was not the first time President Jammeh has stood for re-election. Elections were held in the Gambia in 1996, 2001, 2006, and in 2011. Jammeh was declared the winner of each one.
With each exercise, the citizenry grew more comfortable with the prospect of having their vote counted, of having their voice heard. And, as the saying goes, there is strength in numbers. Eventually, those numbers become undeniable. Perhaps President Jammeh realized this when he initially accepted the results of the election, but then after about a week, he recanted his concession. This turn of events created a dangerous impasse in a period that should have marked the nation’s embrace of another hallmark of democracy—the smooth transition of power. It would have been a transition from 22 years of dictatorship to the dawn of what could well become an authentic democracy. It would have been a victory for the people of Gambia, a new beginning full of possibilities for change.
I was requested by our regional governing body ECOWAS, the Economic Community of West African States, to participate in two missions to Banjul to remonstrate with President Jammeh to accept the will of the Gambian people. I am fairly certain that I was included in the group that made the two missions because I had only recently lost the elections of 7th December in Ghana and had, within 48 hours of the poll, called my opponent, President Akufo-Addo and congratulated him in advance of the declaration of the results by the electoral commission.
It is one thing for a sitting leader, someone still ensconced in the power of a presidency, to explain to the loser of an election why he must concede. It is quite another to hear those same words from a leader who himself has just conceded an electoral defeat. Neither instance made a difference; our words fell on deaf ears. With just hours to go until his mandate expired, President Jammeh declared a state of emergency extending his rule for 90 days. ECOWAS responded by sending in an intervention force to uphold the will of the Gambian people. Since it was obvious that his forcible removal was imminent, President Jammeh agreed to cede power and go into temporary exile in Equatorial Guinea.
There is a fine line between respecting the sovereignty of a nation and recognizing the damage that a dictatorship poses to not only the citizens of that nation but also to the residents in their neighboring countries and, subsequently, the entire subregion. I believe that ECOWAS walked that line quite admirably. And in so doing, a statement was made about the collective vision of West Africa’s political future. Not so long ago, such a thing would not have happened. In my father’s era of politics, regional governing bodies such as ECOWAS and EAC—and even the African Union—were quietly referred to as toothless bulldogs because no matter how loudly they barked, they did not bite. This was dictated by the internationally recognized policy of non-interference in the internal affairs of another nation.
But times have changed. Africa has changed, and she will continue to keep changing. In my father’s day, the United States was the example of a true and great democracy. It was what so many African citizens emulated and wished for their own countries. What American president would ever bully and intimidate a regular citizen the way Col. Acheampong had bullied and intimidated my father, simply because he wrote a letter in which he spoke his mind about what he thought was in the best interest of his nation? Today, we are realizing that the democracy that exists in the United States cannot and perhaps should not exist in the same form for us. Each country has to find the type of democracy that best fits the needs of its citizenry; each democracy has to be shaped by the will of the people, by their collective voice. The more we allow that to happen on this continent, the more our businesses will flourish and our people will prosper. And let me add, there is no shortcut to democratic consolidation and economic prosperity. We need to work at it, we need to stay the course of structural reform. I recognize we have an increasingly youthful population that is impatient to see change and experience prosperity in their lives. But the reality is that, nobody possesses a magic wand to create change and progress with a wish of “abracadabra”. In these critical times, as the nations in the so-called Western world allow fear, religious intolerance, xenophobia, ethnic and racial prejudice to move them into isolation, into closing borders and building walls, what is at stake for us here in Africa is our very survival. We know the value, not only of our natural resources but also of our human resources. We have seen how our brothers and sisters, our daughters and sons, have helped to shape progress in the Diaspora.
We must continue to encourage their return. We must continue to inspire and empower our citizens who are already here. We must work together, all of us, to realize the prosperity we desire. Political stability and the rule of law are not merely a foundation for prosperity;
they are also a protection against the looming threat of terrorism, the senseless violence that has already claimed too many African lives.
When the last military dictatorship came into power in Ghana, my father fled the country. He lived in self-imposed exile for much of the remainder of his life. When I was elected President in 2012, I wished more than anything that my father had been alive and in Ghana to see not just what had become of me, but what had also become of the country he so loved. During the inauguration during which I was sworn in as President, there was a point at which I just sat and listened to the applause. It made me remember those fateful words my father had written in his letter: “leave when the applause is loudest.” Throughout the course of my presidency, I was both applauded and criticized.
I was both revered and reviled. When you find yourself standing at the center of all that sound and fury, it is difficult to determine when it is, indeed, the loudest. I suppose that is why it is important that we leave it to history to determine our legacies. Last month, I attended the inauguration of President Akufo-Addo. When I exited my vehicle and my arrival was publicly announced, there was a loud round of applause. Again, I thought of my father and those words, “leave when the applause is loudest.” Suddenly I understood them in a way I never had before. Democracy, not unlike soccer, is a team sport. When the ball is in your possession, you do your best to move it forward but then you must inevitably pass that ball to the next player and wish him or her the best in making progress because the victory that comes is not claimed by you or any of the other players.
Victory always belongs to the team, and in a democracy the team is always the people, the citizens of the country—and in a broader sense, the region and the continent—that is your home. Leave when the applause is loudest. I thank you for your kind attention. May God bless you, may God continue to bless our motherland Africa and continue to guide her toward greatness.