When presented with a title of this kind, many readers think they know what to expect: drugged-up child soldiers, wince-inducing brutality, ranting demagogues, rebels in women’s wigs. This, thankfully, is not that book. It is something more nuanced, elliptical and elegant.
Ghana is in a different league from Liberia, Guinea or Sierra Leone, its traumatised West African neighbours. Even before the recent discovery that it was sitting on large oil reserves, it was routinely hailed as one of Africa’s success stories. As the ‘first’ in the title makes clear, it has certainly been through its share of political upheaval since independence from Britain in 1957. But when President John Atta Mills died unexpectedly this summer, the army remained in barracks, the constitution was respected and the Vice-President took over in an atmosphere of calm that suggested a mature democracy. He happens to be the author of this book. If there is any correlation between literary skill and political aptitude — which I rather doubt — Ghanaians are in luck. Their current leader is a sophisticated witness with a light touch.
Despite its hopeful closing chapters, this is largely a story of failure. John Dramani Mahama focuses on the ‘lost decades’ of the 1970s, 80s and early 90s, when the promise and excitement of colonial liberation dribbled away, to be replaced by intellectual, economic and political stagnation. ‘They are years that are rarely discussed, years of untold difficulty and hardship, of ever-present hunger and fear. They are years that many have, understandably, tried to forget, to erase entirely from memory.’
Sensing that the place was doomed, many middle-class Africans joined the brain drain. But Mahama was only a boy and he stayed put, watching the drama of a flailing continent being played out by his father — in some ways the real hero of this book — as he rose to prominence, was felled by regime change, reinvented himself and soared again, only to be toppled once more.
Mahama’s father was an outspoken minister in the government of Kwame Nkrumah when the army staged Ghana’s first coup. Detained for a year after dutifully obeying a radio order to present himself at the nearest police station, he emerged with spirit half-broken and assets stripped. Rounding up his family, he moved back to his northern roots and launched himself into rice production, only to see that business venture sabotaged by the next coup leader. When yet another coup was staged in 1981 — Ghana’s fourth — and Mahama Snr’s name again featured on the roll call of party officials told to present themselves at the nearest police station ‘for their own safety’, the family had had enough. They smuggled Dad across the river in a canoe, into exile in Cote d’Ivoire.
The author teases out the foolishness of the policies that turned Ghana into a nation plagued by routine water, electricity and fuel shortages, whose citizens had become experts at queuing for the necessities of life, from bus rides to toilet rolls. But this is, above all, a personal memoir and the viewpoint is always intimate, the lessons drawn intuitive.
He learns about group cowardice and the importance of standing up for one’s rights when he confronts Ezra, the school bully who has been scoffing other pupils’ plantain snacks. He sees the more sinister side of religion when he realises that the feared ‘gods’ who visit his mother’s animist village each year to gorge on food offerings include his uncle. He understands that socialism offers no panacea when, sent to study in Moscow, he discovers that Russians are just as good at queueing as Ghanaians. And racist, to boot.
The episode where he races across Ghana to reach a job interview — a heart-pounding dash from airfield to bus station to truck stop, pleading and begging all the way — is as brilliant an account of the banal challenges of life in an underdeveloped state as I have read. It deserves to be framed and hung above the desk of every African civil servant and politician as a reminder of the route not to follow.
Mahama tells us just how it was; but his voice is tinged with affection, never shrill. ‘The world I try to capture in this book, through these stories, does not exist any more,’ he says. He is right, and that fact will ensure that My First Coup d’Etat is not only treasured as a classic coming-of-age story but as a record of a period in recent African history which already feels several aeons away.