Reflections of a former African president

Prof Ihron Rensburg, UJ Vice-Chancellor and Principal, shares a joke with former president John Mahama, while Prof Chris Landsberg looks on.

By Nezo Sobekwa

On 24 February 2017, John Mahama, former president of Ghana, addressed an IPATC Round Table about his book My First Coup d’Etat: and Other Stories from the Lost Decades of Africa.

Mahama was the leader of Ghana’s Fourth Republic, elected for a four-year term from 2013 to 2017. Prior to this, he served as 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 suggests 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 the ‘lost decades of Africa’ in the 1970s and 1980s. The lost decades, Mahama explained, were those years lost to Ghana due to a ‘revolving door of unconstitutional governments [that is] dictators taking turns in governing’.

Mahama began the Round Table by reading an extract from the first chapter. As 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’. It was accompanied by expressions of euphoria and jubilation, 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, Mahama recalls, it was explained to him that a coup was not a game. Instead, it meant that the government had been overthrown. He thought this concept to be nonsensical, even at the age of seven. ‘How can you overthrow an entire government?’ he asked himself.

This turned out to be a traumatic episode in Ghana’s political history that caused it to lose the next two decades to poor governance and military misrule. Not until 1992, when the nation adopted its first democratic constitution and elected Jerry Rawlings as president, was civilian rule restored.

Next, Mahama read an extract from the chapter entitled ‘Leave While the Applause Is the Loudest’, in which he interrogates the notion of African leaders holding on to power, and explains this as the reason for the 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 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, Mahama said, African countries were seldom left in a better condition by their rulers. Indeed, this kind of arrogance and self-reliance bred anxiety, paranoia and fear. Indeed, 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 Mahama had raised, and other issues around his 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 raised. The question of the lack of electricity generation which had frustrated Mahama’s own presidency preoccupied some of the audience. The roles in Africa of external actors such as China and the US were also discussed.

In response to questions about development and inequality, Mahama referred to the UN”s Sustainable Development Goals of 2016. He suggested that the goal of halving poverty and ‘global targeting’ should continue to frame the kinds of issues that African governments should be focused on. He also noted that while electricity has been a crisis in many African countries, it 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, he said 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 was, at times, used by politicians to gain votes and hold on to power, through shallow nationalist and populist rhetoric.

  • Nezo Sobekwa is a Research Assistant at IPATC. This is an edited version of an article that appeared in The Star on 14 March 2017.