Ghana's New President Shaped By A Violent Past

The President of Ghana unexpectedly died Tuesday, and Ghana's former Vice-President John Dramani Mahama has been sworn in as the country's new leader. The peaceful transition is in contrast to past coups and political problems. Host Michel Martin recently spoke to Dramani Mahama about the Ghana's turmoil, which he details in his new autobiography My First Coup D'Etat.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We turn our attention to Ghana now, where the country is mourning the president, John Atta Mills. He died at a hospital in the capital, Accra, yesterday. He was 68 last Saturday. A law professor for more than 20 years, he eventually turned to politics and served as vice president to then leader Jerry John Rawlings in 1997.

In 2008, Atta Mills narrowly won the presidency in a crowded field of candidates by less than 1 percent of the vote. The peaceful transition was heralded as a triumph of democracy, something that Mills wished would carry through to upcoming elections later this year.

At a bilateral meeting with President Obama at the White House in March, Atta Mills had this to say:

JOHN ATTA MILLS: When there is no peace, it's not the leaders who will suffer. It's the ordinary people who have elected us into office. So we have a big challenge and we know that some of our friends in Africa are looking up to us and we dare not fail them.

MARTIN: Known as a diplomat with a good sense of humor, he also used to be part of the national hockey team. In a 2011 interview on a CNBC Africa program, "Africa Prime," Atta Mills was asked whether he could give himself good marks as a leader. This is what he said:

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "AFRICA PRIME")

MILLS: I taught for 25 years and that's one thing that I learned. Never mark your own script. So I'll not give a definite mark, but I will say that the people of Ghana can testify that we are doing a reasonably good job.

MARTIN: Now, the job will be carried on by his vice president, John Dramani Mahama, who was peacefully sworn in as president hours after the death. Also, he recently published a memoir, which covers the transitions of power in Ghana since the country's first president was overthrown by the military in 1966, the first of several coups.

That event, though, had a profound effect on President Mahama, who was 7 years old at the time. His father, a government minister, never showed up to bring him home from school. President Dramani Mahama captured the unsettled difficult years after independence in his new book, "My First Coup D'Etat: And Other True Stories from the Lost Decades of Africa." We spoke with him recently about the book.

Thank you so much for speaking with us.

PRESIDENT JOHN DRAMANI MAHAMA: Thanks, Michel.

MARTIN: I'd like to start with why you wanted to write this particular book at this particular time, and I think that most people will know that, you know, Africa has produced a large body of internationally acclaimed literature, but we often think of that work as being political or allegorical. I'm sure people would think of "Things Fall Apart," for example. This book is very personal and I was wondering what made you want to write it.

MAHAMA: This book is my contribution to document in a period that has not been very well written about and for good reason; the reason that, after the coup d'etats, military governments sprung up everywhere. I mean, there are abuses of human rights. You know, there was no constitutional democracy. There was suppression of free expression, and all that.

And so a lot of the professionals and intellectuals, you know, just packed their bags and left. And so, for us who lived that period - I'm talking from about mid-'60s till about the late 1980s - I think that we have a certain responsibility to document that era.

MARTIN: You wrote that your first coup d'etat became real when nobody came to pick you up for the Easter holidays.

MAHAMA: Yeah.

MARTIN: What had happened?

MAHAMA: My first coup d'etat is the title of the book, but it is also the title of the first chapter and it's a story of the effect the coup d'etat had on Ghana, on my father, on my family and on me, personally. I was in boarding school in Accra and we were in school over the Easter term and there was news about a coup d'etat. It happened on 24th February 1966 and, on that day, it's like dates that you remember, like on 9/11, everybody remembers what they were doing, you know, at a certain point, or when JFK was killed. I mean, where were you? What were you doing?

And so I remember exactly, you know, the atmosphere on campus and how teachers were huddled together and whispering to each other and - but the full import of what had happened didn't, you know, dawn on me until the end of the term. My father would come and pick me up himself from boarding school or he will send a driver or a relation to pick me up, and I waited and waited. Other children, you know, were picked up until I was left alone in the school.

There was nobody to pick me up and I stayed in the school for a while. The school authorities tried to locate our home. When we got there, the soldiers had taken over the house and they said our family no longer lived there. So I was brought back to the school and it took a while before - finally, my sister was located. She was married to a soldier, a captain in the army, and the paradox and irony of the fact that the army had overthrown, you know, the government of which my father served and the fact that my sister was the one who came and picked me and I went and lived in a military garrison is, you know - did not escape me.

MARTIN: Even at 7?

MAHAMA: Yes.

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: You know, you're recounting this in this matter of fact way, but I have to say that, you know, as a mother, it's just devastating to think about what that must have felt like to be a small boy and have no one come for you. Do you mind talking about that?

MAHAMA: Yeah. It was traumatic. I mean, to be left all alone in boarding school and often we had elderly woman who looked after us young boys in the dormitory and we called them dorm aunties. And often the dorm aunties will also take a break when school vacated. And so my dorm aunty had to stay in the dormitory with me because they didn't know where to take me. And so it was traumatic. I had to share her meals and just live all alone by myself. It was quite lonely. I reflect on it, you know, and I just think it had such a profound influence and shaped, probably shaped the rest of my life going forward.

MARTIN: Your father was imprisoned for a year, and you write that by the time he was released, not only was Ghana a very different country but, quote "not surprisingly I was a much different boy, the course of my future having already been irreversibly impacted by that unspeakable period of violence." And obviously you wrote a whole book about, so it's a very rich and important story. But could you just talk a little bit about that? I mean how had the country changed and how had you changed?

MAHAMA: It was a historical marker of our country, that event. The euphoria of independence, the courage and the heroism in the liberation struggle and the day Ghana was declared independence, the happiness, the joy and the hope that people had of a big bright future, of a country that was managed by ourselves that would make all of us have a decent life, you know, I think that was the marker that deflated the balloon.

After the coup took place, there was a descent into economic hardship, you know, coup after coup, it became the fashion, you know, for military personnel to take over government at the least excuse. And so, I think that that was a kind of historical landmark. And it is that I use as the boundary to describe the period that I call the lost decades.

Ghana's life was affected by it and subsequent events. And I think that it is that whole gamut of experience from the coup d'etat through what we went through that has set the stage for the kind of renewal we are seeing today.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. Our guest is John Dramani Mahama. He is the new president of Ghana. He was sworn in yesterday after the sudden death of President John Atta Mills.

Before he became president though, we spoke with him about his new memoir is called "My First Coup D'Etat: And Other True Stories from the Lost Decades of Africa."

Yeah, I mentioned at the beginning of our conversation that this story is very personal, which it is. But many of the experiences that you do choose to recount are a microcosm for Africa's story, you certainly present them that way. And I think one story that has stood out for many people who've read your book is the story of Buafo(ph), the bully, and how he kind of epitomizes what you were talking about here and how you stood up to him. And could you talk a little bit about that? I'm particularly interested in what you would want people to draw from your story here.

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: The boy who kept taking everybody's snack.

MAHAMA: That's right. That's right. Buafo.

(LAUGHTER)

MAHAMA: This story is a favorite for a lot of people.

MARTIN: Mm-hmm.

MAHAMA: It's the story of a bully who came to our school. He joined us, we tried to make him feel at home and welcomed him, you know. And in a short while, he had somehow taken authority over us and then began to control us, you know, sending us on errands and ordering us about. And the climax was when he said that every afternoon we had a snack that was given between lunch and dinner and we took it just before we went to do sporting activity. And he issued an edict and said we all should deliver our snacks to him. And then he'll decide what to do with them. And so all the boys in our dormitory, any time we went and took our snacks, we'd take it to Buafo, he would divide it unequally and give you smaller share and keep the bigger share to himself.

What I tried to do is to juxtapose what Buafo was doing to us in school with what was happening on the wider continent.

MARTIN: But you decided you weren't giving up your snack. Let's go to right there. You just said, you know what? I'm done with this. I'm not giving up my snack.

MAHAMA: Yeah. I decided...

MARTIN: And then what happened?

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: And then what happened?

MAHAMA: I decided with my friends, you know, that he didn't have a right to do what he was doing. And so we decided, you know, on a cause of action and it was D-Day, unfortunately my friends chickened out. And I had already bitten into my snack and eaten half of it, you know, and so I decided to take the consequences. I went to Bua - I changed the name to Ezra. I went to Ezra and Ezra asked me, where's your snack? And I said, I've eaten it. And he beat me up. And once I started the action, I had to keep it up. You know, he beat me a third time and then he suddenly realized that my action was going to trigger a mass action against him. And so one day he just announced that I was exempt from handing over my snack to him.

MARTIN: Well, first of all, why did you change the name? Is he the minister of finance now or something?

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Like why? He can't beat you up again, can he, a fourth time?

MAHAMA: No, I just did that to...

MARTIN: He knows who he is.

MAHAMA: ...to protect the privacy of the people, you know, mentioned in the book. Yes.

MARTIN: OK. With all due respect, he's not the minister of finance, so please don't call me.

MAHAMA: No.

MARTIN: But...

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: ...with respect, I mean this is one of the questions I think many people have about the circumstances that you describe so vividly in this book is why.

MAHAMA: Yeah.

MARTIN: And I think I had to ask because I think many people listening to our conversation will say yeah, why does this continue? Why does the kind of brutality that is so familiar to anybody who watches these events continue?

MAHAMA: I think that there are various cultural reasons and other reasons why people would tolerate a situation like that and not speak up or act. But I do think that people's resistance to issues of iniquity and human rights abuses and general domination and oppression is built on their own gradual realization of the circumstance and coming together and realizing that they have a certain power in their numbers and in unity to be able to resist the situation that has been imposed on them. And so it's a realization people come to but it takes time. And I tell the story as to the point when I resisted, I was beaten and I got my freedom. Beyond that, some things happened. And people ask me what happened to Ezra? I just leave that as a mystery of the book.

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Exactly.

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: One of the things that you talked about is that this memoir is very much a memoir of the people who stayed. And I think that anybody who lives in a major city or in a university town, for example, will be aware of one of the factors that affected Ghana's progress in the past was the brain drain, which you talked about.

MAHAMA: Yeah.

MARTIN: Which, you know, the best and the brightest left.

MAHAMA: Yeah.

MARTIN: And I wonder do you feel, you know, resentment toward those people? Do people like you who stayed feel resentment toward the people who left, even though many of them have become, you know, quite successful elsewhere?

MAHAMA: I don't think so. I don't feel resentment against them. I understand the circumstance in which they left. I mean for many of them there was nothing else to look forward to and their talents were being wasted. They couldn't, you know, survive or understand the system, you know, that had suddenly engulfed their countries and then they thought that their talents were best applied elsewhere. And so they took their bags and they left.

For us, we were growing up, my dad had left politics and gone into agribusiness and was quite successful. And it was a period where we were growing up and so we just lived our lives in adversity. But even in adversity I think there were bright spots, there was joy, there was happiness in some circumstances. It's possible to look back at it with hindsight and laugh and find it funny, you know. But when you lived it was not as funny.

I recount the incident of even where to get a cold beer, you know, you had to go to the disco and you paid a gate fee to go into the disco. And with the ticket you got at the gate you're entitled to one bottle of ice cold beer. And after you drank it, if you wanted a second bottle, you had to come out of the disco, buy another ticket, go into the disco again and be entitled to another bottle of ice cold beer. And so, I mean these are things that we can look back at now and laugh, you know, but they were not normal times. And then I don't begrudge anybody who left at that time.

Happily, there's a reversal of the brain drain occurring in Ghana now. We're seeing a lot of - actually in Africa - we're seeing a lot of African professionals, you know, returning to the continent to contribute their quota.

MARTIN: Well, you know, to that end though, Ghana's growth rate was around 14 percent last year, which is quite an enviable circumstance, particularly given how much the economies of Western Europe and the United States have struggled and have slowed down. So, you know, you've got these two stories operating in tandem.

MAHAMA: Yeah.

MARTIN: You know, you've got Africa rising.

MAHAMA: Yeah.

MARTIN: You've got tremendous economic growth in some places. And you still though, have the kind of unspeakable brutality in some corners that continues. And I'm just interested in your thoughts about that.

MAHAMA: I think that Africa has made quite rapid progress and a lot of the conflicts that we saw on the continent have abated. I mean if you take West Africa, Sierra Leone has settled. Liberia has had a second successful election, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf won the election. And between last year, 2011 and 2012, 24 African countries, you know, have gone to elections to elect, you know, governments and the constitutional democracy. Of the 10 top performing economies in the world in terms of GDP growth rate, six were African, and my country was one of them - I'm proud to say - 14 percent economy growth rate in one year, that was significant. And you can see a steady progress towards good governance, constitutional governance, vibrant media, strong civil society organizations. And I think that Africa is making progress that the world needs to recognize and assist the continent to continue on that path. I believe the continent is on the right path and it is the collective experience that we went through - from independence through the period of military coups up to this point -that has helped create the Renaissance that we're seeing.

MARTIN: What would you like people to draw from your book?

MAHAMA: I often want to refrain from saying what I want people to take away from this book. I think I just document my country and my continent from the eyes of a young boy growing up, and I think that people should take their own messages from it. But I would say that one of the things I think people should note is that like a young boy growing up, you know, like a tree that is planted, you need to plant the seed. You need to water it. You need to nurture it and let it grow. It takes time to grow. With the kinds of progress we're seeing in Africa, we have people who have a very high expectation, and often people think that, you know, things would happen overnight. But I want people to understand that sometimes it even gets worse before it gets better. And when it's getting better, it's a process, it's not an event. And so we need to be patient with the processes that are taking place in Africa so that we don't end up taking two steps forward and one step back.

MARTIN: Thank you so much for speaking with us.

MAHAMA: Thank you, Michel.

MARTIN: John Dramani Mahama is the president of Ghana. His new memoir is titled "My First Coup D'Etat: And Other True Stories from the Lost Decades of Africa."

And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow.

(SOUNDBITE MUSIC)

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