Ghana's New Leader Talks Africa's Future

We caught up with John Dramani Mahama just days before tragedy propelled him into the presidency.

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Steve Ababio

Editor's note: On July 10 in New York City, The Root was honored with the opportunity to sit down with Ghana's then-Vice President John Dramani Mahama, who was doing a book tour for his new memoir, My First Coup d'Etat: And Other True Stories From the Lost Decades of Africa. Mahama had written for The Root in the past, and we looked forward to an open and wide-ranging conversation about the lessons he has learned about Ghana's past and future. During it, he touched on Africa's "lost decades," his hope for the region's future and the role of Chinese investment in that future. As the Republic of Ghana mourns the death of President John Atta Mills, we extend our condolences and share with you a glimpse of the African nation's interim president, to be sworn in Tuesday eveningJohn Dramani Mahama. 

(The Root) -- When John Dramani Mahama, who until July 24 was the vice president of the Republic of Ghana, was in class three at an elite boarding school in the late 1960s, he experienced an unforgettable encounter with a bully named Ezra. After slyly gaining the trust of his peers, Ezra, muscular and bold for his age, managed to create a system that required all students in the school to donate their mid-afternoon snacks to his private food collection, one that he would dive into after-hours without sharing. Ezra instilled so much fear in his classmates that no matter how unfair it was, everyone obliged.

Eventually, young Mahama grew tired of the snack confiscation system. He and his friends set out to plan a peaceful revolt. They would scarf down their snacks just before the time came to turn them over to Ezra. They would deliver a thoughtful speech -- something about how their fathers pay their school fees, and thus, pay for their snacks. They would stand up for themselves and await the consequences.

Out of fear, his two friends dropped out at the last minute. Still, Mahama didn't waver in his plan to defect. He ate his cake.

"Ezra released his punishment in one fell swoop. I barely felt the blow, but it landed me on the floor," he wrote in a chapter of his new memoir, My First Coup d'Etat: And Other True Stories From the Lost Decades of Africa. "He kneed me; he gave me knocks on my head. He really maltreated me, but I did not die. I did not die."

It was his experience with Ezra that Mahama called a true "microcosm of what was happening all throughout Africa." From the late 1960s until the 1980s, just after Africa freed itself from the grip of European colonialism, dictators sprouted up as often as new national flags. War and poverty ravished the continent.

"Additionally, because of the economy, hardships and the brain drain of that time, the period wasn't documented properly," he told The Root about his reasons for chronicling this time period in his book.   

In his debut memoir, Mahama is part novelist, part historian and part ethnographer, weaving his life's story with the history of Africa's first independent country. Mahama spoke to The Root about those "lost decades," why Chinese investment in Ghana is critical for this period of history, or what he casually called the "found decades," and why countries in North Africa can learn from their sub-Saharan neighbors.

The Root: What is so urgent about touching on what you coined the "lost decades"? What insights can we glean from that time in history that would apply today?

John Dramani Mahama: A lot of people who have written about Africa write about the precolonial struggle for independence, or postcolonial period. [But the "lost decades"] was the period that set the stage and created a platform for the progress that we're seeing today. We learned from experiences of the coups d'état, from the droughts and from the brutality of the era. So [now] there is a strong sense of protecting human rights in Africa today. A strong sense of [the value] of a constitutional government. A strong sense of rule of law. So the era was a catalyst for the improvements we're seeing today.

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