Ghana’s New Leader Talks Africa’s Future

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

Steve Ababio

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’├ętat, 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.

TR: You write about Ezra, a school bully from your childhood, and how your experience with him served as a microcosm of what was happening around Ghana. How have you resisted other Ezras and bullies in your career?

JDM: At the time, there were really horrible dictators ruling in Africa. I used Ezra’s story to show that in our own little ways, by defying and resisting such bullies, we could create a better society for our people. And that is what began to happen in Africa. Ordinary people — who were normally powerless, helpless and unarmed — resisted. Uganda’s Idi Amin died in exile. Democratic Republic of Congo’s Mobutu Sese Seko had to run and died in exile. People rose up and found their voices again. And when people come together and speak up as a collective, there is nothing that can stop the power of the people. Everybody who has read that story has identified their own bullies in their lives. Everyone has an Ezra in their life, but one must be able to build up courage and say, enough is enough, I won’t take this anymore.

TR: Resistance seems to be a major theme in your book. If we consider what has happened in North Africa over the last year, what do you think the role of resistance will be in sub-Saharan Africa in the coming years?

JDM: Sub-Saharan Africa has made that transition already. People look at the Arab Spring and ask when is it going to happen in sub-Saharan Africa, but it’s happened already. Sub-Saharan Africa has transitioned to democracy, to elections and to good governance as a rule of law. So I think a more accurate question would be what influence has sub-Saharan Africa had on the Arab world?

TR: If it’s not resistance from a political standpoint, are there any social issues that might stir up some resistance? Perhaps with gay, women’s or children’s rights?