Exclusive: Ghana’s President John Dramani Mahama in Interview with Alhassan Y. Babal-waiz, ANA’s North America EditorAfrica, Community Bulletin, Diplomatic Dispatch, News
Ghana’s Vice (now President), His Excellency John Dramani Mahama, who was on a four-state book tour of the United States of America, gave this exclusive interview to Alhassan Y. Babal-waiz, North America Editor of AfricaNewsAnalysis (ANA), on July 12, 2012 at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington, DC. The interview focused on his book “My First Coup D’état“.
AlhassanY. Babalwaiz: The Ekiti State University in Nigeria recently conferred on you a PhD in Public Administration. Today (only a few months later), you are here on a four-state tour to promote your book —“My First Coup D’état”. Congratulations, your Excellency. Africa should be proud of you, Sir.
H. E. John Dramani Mahama: Thank you. Well, I hope so (laughter). I hope everybody enjoys the book.
Alhassan Y. Babalwaiz: Back in 2004, when I had a one-on-one with you as the then Minority Spokesperson on Communications, about five phone calls from different radio stations, would interrupt the session as you spoke—dragging the half an hour (planned) interview to nearly two hours. Fast forward to 2012, your world has expanded along with your responsibilities. Yet you remain engaged with the blogosphere and the non-fiction media in general, and even made time to write your memoir—hailed by many as your magnum opus yet. How did you juggle these different hard balls while steering the wheel of governance in the country?
H.E. John Dramani Mahama: It’s been challenging. It’s not easy to juggle all these responsibilities. One of the most precious things I have is my time. How to manage my time. So it’s taken quite a bit. The book has been in the works for many years. Probably, if I had much time I would have belted it out quicker, and it would have been published much earlier. But it’s taken quite a while to do. But in a way that’s also a challenge. While it’s a challenge, it’s also good–because by the time I find time to do some writing, I find that it goes quite quickly because, I’ve had time to scribble some notes and put down a general outline of what I want to do. So as soon as I sat down, I’m able to use my time more efficiently. Often when you have too much time on your hands it’s very easy to procrastinate. So it’s been a challenge and I think at the same time, it’s been a blessing in disguise. Politics in Africa is particularly engaging and you need to spend a lot of time to engage with the people, to carry out your official responsibilities and in my case, those responsibilities are quite onerous. I chair so many committees, and have to do a lot of work. One minute you are in international conferences with other heads of states and another minute you are in meetings in the office, another minute you are out in the community–cutting ribbons for projects that government has completed and so on and so forth. So it’s a challenge but we’ve managed to live up to it.
Alhassan Y. Babalwaiz: Scholars of African literature, as you know, have categorized African Literary theory into two main canons, the colonial and the post-colonial canons of African literature, in which canon can one place “My First Coup d’état”?
H.E. John Dramani Mahama: Actually, I want to break out of those canons because I think that African literature is more complex than that, and indeed if you read the book, I speak about the new period–you might say post-colonial or post independence, but for nations like ours we’ve been independent for fifty-four years or so. And so it’s too simplistic to just place African literature into two periods. Each period has its own influence on what we write and I write about the period I call the “lost decades”—thus from about the late sixties till about the late eighties. It spans about a 20-year period. And I think that the effects of living in Africa at the time are what will direct the telling of the story. And so that is the period in which the book is set and I hope that it is my modest contribution to African literature.
Alhassan Y. Babalwaiz: Your book is in deed a work of art. But beyond the fine points of stylistics, what is the message at the core of this work? What are you trying to engrain in the conscience of your fellow African leaders and the world in general?
H.E. John Dramani Mahama: I guess that everybody takes a message from any literary work. All of us have grown up reading different authors. From early life, we grew up on the Nancy Drews, Enid Blightens, and all those writers. Much later, we read the Shakespeare of this world, the Jane Austens and all of them. By the time too, there was a growing colony of African writers and if you remember, the African writers’ series– Heinemann collection. All these books tendered to influence us in one way or the other and we all took whatever messages there were from these books. It is my intention that people read my book too, and take a message out of it. But if I must put it in context, I would say that like Dramani in the book–his growing up process from a little boy, when the coup happened, until about the time the book ends in the mid eighties, coming back from the Soviet Union with a Post-Graduate degree in communications, life is a process, and life, like any plant or three, needs to be nurtured. There are challenges along the way, but you need to have the patience and tolerance to let the process roll out. And so for me the message this book conveys is that in Africa, we should have a certain patience and tolerance for life to roll out. Often we are very expectant, very impatient. You elect a government in today, and you expect that it should be able to do every road in the country, every school, every hospital. Life is a process and I think that Africa is doing well and we are moving forward and our people should have faith in the process.
Alhassan Y. Babalwaiz: In an excerpt (from the book) which you wrote in The Root magazine, you compared Ezra, the protagonist who was your junior school bully, to African dictators of the post-independence 1960s. In your own words: “what was happening to my group of friends and me in Achimota, around 1967 and 1968, was truly a microcosm of what was happening all throughout Africa. Dictators were sprouting up one after another…”. As a history scholar yourself, don’t you think we can also equate Ezra’s exploits to centuries back in time when the continent was figuratively placed on a dicing table, cut into pieces of states, and shared among the imperialist powers during the 1884-85 Berlin scramble for Africa?
H. E. John Dramani Mahama: The book has various styles. Often what I’ve done in every chapter is, while writing the story of Dramani, also put it in the wider context of what was happening in Africa and the world at the same time. So you would see that in many occasions, there are references to world events and events in Ghana and in Africa. And so that’s the context in which it is set. I mean Ezra was a bully and for purposes of privacy, I’ve changed his name. His name really wasn’t Ezra. He bullied me and my friends. So one of the lessons I took from there is that, working together, we can overcome bullies like Ezra. And so it’s the same in the world. I mean civil society organizations, advocates for democracy and good governance, traditional rulers, religious leaders, have all stood up against dictatorship. And you see that the continent has come a long way. It has changed. I mean between last year and this year alone, twenty-six Africa nations have gone through elections, and that in the past, would have been unthought of. There was a time when almost every country in the continent had a military government. We’ve come a long way since then, and so I try to contextualize the story of the bully with the story of African dictators who bullied the continent for a long time and the way I stood up in the story. Of course, I would have counted on the support of my friends, but they chickened out at the critical time. But in other circumstances all over the continent, people stood up and they’ve made the change that we are all enjoying now.
Alhassan Y. Babalwaiz: You’ve recently joined the Ghanaian Writers Association (GWA). And one of the objectives of writing this book is to revive the culture of reading in Ghana and Africa. At a time when a large section of Ghanaian and African youth are whiling away quality time on social networking sites such face book and twitter, In which way do you think we can use these same platforms to revive the culture of reading in Ghana and Africa?
H.E. John Dramani Mahama: Social Networking sites have changed the way we communicate in this world. They’ve become a major tool and instrument for interaction and communication between friends, but also between politicians and their electorates, between teacher and student, between father and son, between mother and daughter. So they are a very important channel of communication now. All our kids and everybody is on face book. At the same time, we can use those social networking sites to share information. For instance, since the launch of this book, information about the book and its availability has pass from friend to friend on all the social networking sites. And I’m getting a lot of positive feed back from people who would say: “Oh! Congratulations on your book” and I would say “thank you, where did you get this information”, and he would say a friend posted it on his face book page. So I think that in a way, it’s good because it will help boost access to knowledge, it will help boost people’s ability to read.
Alhassan Y. Babalwaiz: Among those who reviewed, and highly recommended your memoir are Chinua Achebe, Author of Things Fall Apart, and Ngugi wa Thiong’o, of Weep Not Child—two giants in the pantheon of the African literati. How does that make you feel?
H.E. John Dramani Mahama: I’m so proud that I got these two blurbs particularly. We grew up on Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. The main character in Things Fall Apart is Okonkow. It was a book we all loved to read when we were kids. So for a great writer like Chinua Achebe (who had since gone on to write Ant Hills of The Savannah among many other books) to have agreed to read my book and give it a kind of positive, positive commentary that he did, I feel very proud! Ngugi wa Thaingo’s frist book, that I read was, Weep Not Child, which was set in the context of Kenya’s Libration struggle. Ngugi is a fantastic writer. And earlier when I had put the synopsis together and looking for a publisher, Ngugi’s quote helped me get the publisher for the book. I’m very grateful to them and I feel very proud that two such giants of African literature endorsed the book.
Alhassan Y. Babalwaiz: The review, which is written by the Publisher’s Weekly reads: “In fluid, unpretentious style, Mahama unspools Ghana’s history via entertaining and enlightening personal anecdotes…The book draws to a close as the author’s professional life begins, and one suspects the most interesting chapters have yet to be written.” No doubt the narrative has lost its steam as your world expands. As readers, should we expect a sequel to My First Coup d’état—in the next few years of your public office?
H.E. John Dramani Mahama: I’ve been asked this question several times. People ask:”but why did the book end where it ended?” I mean, “why didn’t it continue into your years in politics?” And my Answer is simple. I am still living the present. I think that the thing about memoire says you write better with hindsight. I’ve lived and passed the whole of my youth and so I can look and understand the things that happen better. With the present, I’m still living it. I’m sitting Vice President of the country. And probably when I retire from politics, I will look back with hindsight and I will be able to write.
Alhassan Y. Babalwaiz: That reflects Ngugi wa Thiongo’s apt comment on the book where he observes that:”…he interacts with history as a living tissue…”. Right?
H.E. John Dramani Mahama: Yes, that’s right. That’s right.
Alhassan Y. Babalwaiz: Thank you very much your Excellency, for making time to speak to Africa NewsAnalysis.
H. E. John Dramani Mahama: You are welcome.