For two decades Ghana has been celebrated for its democratic politics, on-schedule elections and peaceful transfers of power. The record contrasts with the country’s prior instability, going back to the 1966 coup that unseated Kwame Nkrumah, a blow to pan-Africanist dreams and the event that opens John Dramani Mahama’s memoir My First Coup d’Etat: And Other True Stories from the Lost Decades of Africa (Bloomsbury).
Back then, Mahama was a nine-year-old boy, returning to the family home to find it surrounded by soldiers, and his father, a Nkrumah official, taken away. Today, Mahama is Ghana’s president, the beneficiary of its latest orderly transition. This one took place not via election, but with the death in office of President John Atta Mills, on July 24 this year. Mahama, the vice president, took over as the constitution mandated. A previously little known figure, he was suddenly front and center—and also suddenly more knowable, as the memoir had appeared just a few weeks earlier. Days before events lifted him to the presidency, Mahama was on a book tour in the US, speaking at the Schomburg Center in New York City and appearing on NPR, where the host asked him to read a passage about an encounter, as a child in his mother’s village, with a snake.
Mahama is Ghana’s first president born after independence, in 1958. But more significant to him, at least in his teenage years in the northern city of Tamale, was that he was born only three months after Michael Jackson. That, plus the fact that they both came from big families, felt like kinship: “I had more in common with Michael Jackson than any of those boys who purposely spoke in awkwardly high voices or stood in front of the mirror every morning and diligently picked their Afros,” Mahama writes. In the early 1970s, upcountry Ghana was caught up in the “cultural exchange taking place between black America and West Africa”—while dashikis proliferated in US streets, “we in Ghana had taken to wearing hipsters, miniskirts, and polyester shirts that were left unbuttoned straight down to the navel.” But the music, Mahama writes, was the “main event.” Motown and Stax were the rage. The 1971 Soul to Soul festival brought Wilson Pickett, Roberta Flack and many others to Black Star Square in Accra. Young Mahama didn’t make the trip, but the provincial discos relayed the energy, and it wasn’t long before Mahama’s older siblings were forming their own bands, Frozen Fire and Oracles 74.
Those were good days. Mahama’s father, E. A. Mahama, had rebounded, having survived the post-Nkrumah purge. At first, he had sought ways to make himself useful in Accra but confronted Ghana’s notorious regional prejudice against northerners; in Mahama’s delicate phrasing, “the south wasn’t being especially welcoming to him in his attempt to start anew.” The father’s decision to go back to Tamale, which Mahama frames as an act of sankofa, looking back so as to better move forward, brought rewards. The elder Mahama set himself up as a farmer and moved into agribusiness, growing and processing rice for the national market and even export. He became, Mahama says plainly, “enormously wealthy.” The children benefited: “He liked for us to have all the things that he did not have while he was growing up … He especially indulged us in our love for music, buying us top-of-the-line music systems … He even bought us a little convertible MG so that we could zip around town.”
But a darkness was looming. General I. K. Acheampong’s regime, for a time viewed as somewhat benevolent or at least pragmatic, was hardening and succumbing to typical symptoms of self-aggrandizement and paranoia. E. A. Mahama’s work appealed to Acheampong, who sought national food security, and the two men had a cordial rapport, until Mahama senior committed a mistake: he wrote a letter to the general “to offer him a bit of the insight he’d gleaned from his years as a politician.” He advised Acheampong to quit while he was ahead—“to leave when the applause is loudest,” and to secure his legacy by lifting the ban on political parties and beginning the transition to civilian rule. The advice was not well received: Mahama senior was brought in for questioning, and later, when somewhat obliquely described events saw him lose control of his company to other shareholders, the general was of no recourse. In 1980 the father re-entered politics under the short-lived and ineffectual Limann civilian government; after Flt. Lt. Jerry Rawlings staged his second coup, on December 31, 1981, another round-up and bloody purge beckoned, and this time, E. A. Mahama fled the country, escaping to Côte d’Ivoire in a fraught journey that the son describes vividly, and later moving on to Nigeria.
By that point, John Dramani Mahama had earned his history degree (his third choice of subject, but one he came to enjoy) from the University of Ghana, and returned to Tamale to fulfill two years of national service by teaching at the secondary school from which he’d graduated. His status as a teacher earned him a modicum of respect, but soldiers were roaming about, and the atmosphere was unpleasant. The economic situation was catastrophic and an immense brain drain was on. Mahama joined his father in Nigeria: “Leaving Ghana wasn’t as difficult as I imagined. The country had hit rock bottom.”
Nigeria offered only temporary shelter. The wealth contrast was striking—“Nigeria was beaming with prosperity and promise”—there was construction everywhere and the rich sprinkled money around ostentatiously. But social relations were poor. Religious and ethnic communities clashed violently in the north. More ominously, anti-Ghanaian prejudice was brewing unchecked. One day, Mahama watched a vigilante mob murder a Ghanaian alleged thief, first beating him to a pulp then hoisting a tire over his neck, dousing it in petrol and setting it alight. Mahama was powerless: “If I so much as spoke a word, they would be able to tell that I was a Ghanaian, too. … I’d never witnessed someone being murdered before. It was devastating.” By the time Nigeria enacted its mass expulsion of Ghanaians in 1983, Mahama and his father had left; the father, for London, the son, back home.
“Writing became my salvation,” Mahama says of that time. It was both coping mechanism and useful tool: “I wanted to become a better communicator.” He found his way to a post-graduate program in communication studies at the national university, and later, to a two-year social science fellowship in Moscow while the Soviet Union was in the throes of perestroika. That experience put Mahama, who had become enamored with socialism in secondary school, in the midst of the ideology’s self-questioning and crisis. It made him feel better about Ghana, where things were improving on both economic and political fronts. To expect Ghana or any other newly independent country to find all the answers in a few short years, he realized, “was to deny it the right to grow and learn on its own terms.” How this revelation would lead Mahama into politics is left unsaid: this memoir ends in the mid-nineties, and Mahama characterizes that period, when Rawlings remained president but as a civilian, in only cursory terms, and doesn’t touch on the last 15 years at all. With Mahama now president and running for election in his own right this December, representing a National Democratic Congress (NDC) in which Rawlings and his wife, Nana Konadu Agyeman-Rawlings, command a strong faction, the editorial decision seems, in hindsight, most politic.
My First Coup d’Etat is at least as much a family memoir as a political one, though on this front too, one feels that quite a lot more could have been told. A number of set pieces feel forced: for instance, an extended section in which Mahama recalls standing up to a bully while a primary school pupil at the prestigious Achimota School, and compares the bully’s method of intimidation to those of the dictators who were sprouting across Africa at the same time. Various allusions to myth and folk tales fall a little flat. And the prose, while clear, open, and possessed of the ring of honesty (writer Meri Nana-Ama Danquah is warmly credited, in the acknowledgments, for her collaboration), takes few if any risks.
But the work has plenty of force, not only as a vibrant testimonial to the experiences and influences that mark the generation now ascending, across the continent, to the apex of politics and industry, but on its own narrative merits as well. One very strong theme—supported by material that is little short of haunting—is the arbitrariness of family and individual destinies, even identities, in the compressed experience of colonization and its aftermath. Mahama senior, we learn early in the book, owed his Western education (and ensuing status) to the whim of a colonial district commissioner, who had come to the grandfather’s compound to find a child to enroll in school. The elder Mahama was a small child with a protruding navel, which the commissioner felt moved to pinch. The child instinctively struck back, knocking off the commissioner’s hat, but also inscribing himself in the man’s mind as the boy to select for education. From this small act of colonial condescension and patronizing magnanimity, a family’s fortune was made.
Names, too, are arbitrary. The colonial system required patronyms, so Mahama, the father’s first name, became the family surname. Christian schools demanded Christian first names, so the father became Emmanuel, and eventually the author’s older siblings became Adam, Peter and Alfred, those being the choices offered by a school headmaster. These older brothers in turn selected “John” for their younger sibling Dramani. “Our father didn’t protest or disagree,” Mahama writes. “I think that’s because he knew that he would merely be delaying the inevitable.” Only much later, upon entering politics, would John Mahama bring his birth name, Dramani, back into his public appellation.
There was another son too: Samuel, who, in an eerie echo of their father’s experience, was taken to London in the late 1960s by a missionary couple who were returning there. Mahama waits until the book’s final chapters to introduce this topic, and it’s devastating. “The Thompsons told Dad that in order to take Samuel to London with them, they would have to be his legal guardians … Dad agreed to sign over his parental rights. To him it was nothing more than a formality.” The mother disagreed; like Mahama senior’s mother in her time, who “suffered an anguish that everyone believed eventually led to her death,” she too was devastated. “The hurt never went away,” Mahama writes; the marriage did not survive. The missionary couple supplied the family with updates but when Mahama senior visited England for work, they never let him see his son. When E. A. Mahama took refuge in London after leaving Nigeria in the 1980s, he became obsessed with finding Samuel; that search’s ending is related in the memoir’s coda. It’s not an unhappy dénouement, but it’s still bittersweet—a reminder that in countries still so new, those entrusted with the high goal of assembling and leading the nation do so against the background of so many private wounds and ruptures, usually untold.