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July 20, 2012 7:41 pm
My First Coup d’Etat: Memories from the Lost Decades of Africa, by John Dramani Mahama, Bloomsbury, RRP£14.99/$24, 336 pages
On February 24 1966, military officers in Ghana toppled President Kwame Nkrumah, who had led the country to independence nine years before. Nkrumah was exiled to Guinea and never returned. Senior government officials were rounded up and detained.
John Dramani Mahama was seven at the time and attending a prestigious boarding school in the capital, Accra. Though his father was a minister in Nkrumah’s government, Mahama received no word that anything was wrong until the end of term that April, when nobody came to pick him up. The next day an “auntie” – as dormitory matrons were called – put Mahama in a taxi and together they went to his father’s house, where they found policemen and soldiers. Asked where the honourable minister was, a soldier with bloodshot eyes replied gruffly: “He no longer lives here.”
This “first coup d’état” was not Ghana’s last. Several decades would pass before the country regained its course. Today, things look much brighter, with two peaceful transfers of power over the past dozen years and an economy that is growing strongly. Mahama knows this well; he is Ghana’s vice-president.
This is no typical political memoir, though. Rather it is the engaging story of a boy coming of age in the “lost decades” of military rule in Ghana that preceded multiparty democracy. Mahama tells it tenderly and well, weaving small slices of history and culture into a family narrative so rich in colour it at times feels like magical realism.
His father, who plays a central role in the book, got his big break as a child because of his herniated umbilicus – “a big protruding navel” that caught the eye of a visiting British district commissioner in what was then known as the Gold Coast. The commissioner bent down to pinch the navel of the shirtless boy, who recoiled in pain and slapped him. Admiring the child’s spunk, the colonial official “recruited” him to attend a good school more than 100 miles away. The boy’s mother was heartbroken but education enabled him to become a teacher and later a politician.
Along the way Mahama Sr had 19 children by four wives and various other women, and doted on them all. But John Dramani was the lucky one; he alone got to attend the elite school in Accra. During the holidays, and later for his secondary schooling too, he returned to Ghana’s north, and his experience there provides the book’s richest material.
Despite the country’s travails, Mahama paints a picture of a mostly carefree, idyllic childhood. With his siblings and friends such as big-nosed Awudu, the “Oxygen Catcher”, they hunted small animals and ran from lions and snakes. An encounter with hail – “Ice blocks? Falling from the sky? In Ghana?” – caused wonder. The monthly full moon dance in the village square featured a brass band playing James Brown songs and young couples who offered “a kind of poetry to the flirtation ... As the evening went on under the light of that moon, people would find partners not only for dancing but for life.”
After spending a year in jail, Mahama’s father turned his hand to rice farming – with great success. The Mahama children had everything they wanted: toys, music systems, even a convertible MG car to drive to the disco. The political passion of the 1960s had disappeared with the exile, death or imprisonment of so many African political heroes – Nkrumah, Patrice Lumumba, Nelson Mandela – yet the 1970s were vibrant in another way, becoming a “season of song” in Ghana, with Motown and Stax Records providing the soundtrack.
Then Mahama’s father made the mistake of writing a letter to military leader General IK Acheampong, whom he knew and quite admired, suggesting he consider a return to constitutional rule. He was briefly detained, and soon his farming business faltered. Not long afterwards he was forced to flee the country following Flight Lieutenant Jerry Rawlings’ 1981 coup, escaping by canoe across the Black Volta river to Ivory Coast, and later to Nigeria and then England. Many thousands of Ghanaians followed him out as the military repression increased and the economy nosedived.
Mahama, meanwhile, obtained degrees in history and communications, before being selected to study in the Soviet Union during its final days, an experience that tempered his previous enthusiasm for socialism. His own rise through politics is not part of the story, which is a pity, given his elevated position today.
And while his aim in this book is simply “to present the life that I led and the Ghana and Africa that I knew during a specific period of time”, it could have benefited from a little more analysis. What were the shortcomings of Nkrumah’s (and his father’s) government that contributed to its overthrow? I also wanted to know more about the country’s various rulers, such as Rawlings, whose execution of Gen Acheampong and several other former junta and military leaders merits only a sentence, and who founded the political party that Mahama represents.
The age of coups has ended in Ghana, we must hope. Mahama has given us a useful reminder of the bad old days yet the real value of his book lies in its depiction of ordinary life in a time of turmoil – and of how people adapt and carry on regardless.
Xan Rice is the FT’s west Africa correspondent
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