IT’S NOT HARD to comprehend why politicians’ memoirs usually appear after their careers are over. With not much to do and with a legacy to shape, politicians can get a jump-start on their lionization, presenting early defeats that steeled them for triumph (Bill Clinton, Margaret Thatcher) or rehashing debates with colleagues whom they blame for all their mistakes (Tony Blair, Donald Rumsfeld, and many more). Sometimes, though not too often, they are actually fun to read.
While they are in office, though, books by politicians have a different character—policy-oriented, turgid, and usually ghostwritten. Barack Obama’s Dreams from My Father, from before he entered politics, is masterful; The Audacity of Hope, written after his election to the Senate, is a glorified stump speech. Nicolas Sarkozy’s Témoignage or Testimony, is worse: an angry nationalist screed laced with self-glorifying personal yarns. With the exception of a few writer-politicians—the British Labour leader Michael Foot; the French prime minister Dominique de Villepin; and most famously, of course, Václav Havel—high-ranking officials aren’t worth reading while they are still in power.
To those exceptions we can now add John Dramani Mahama, who in late July became the new president of Ghana, and whose memoir My First Coup d’Etat shows an uncommon literary ambition. Mahama wrote this book while serving as vice-president under John Atta Mills, who was elected in 2008 and presided over an oil- and construction-fueled boom. On July 24, Mills suddenly died and Mahama was sworn in as his successor. Though it is a politician’s memoir, the book is not a very political one. At its conclusion Mahama is only in his late thirties; his political career is still distant. Moreover, he is largely uninterested in constructing a hagiographic backstory (though there is a bit of one), and he does not disguise the fact that his youth was a privileged one. His goal, instead, is to offer a window onto a neglected era: the “lost decades” of the 1970s and 1980s, when the headiness of African liberation gave way to economic stagnation and recurring political upheaval.
Few memoirs on this period in African political history have reached American readers. While more than a few novelists who wrestle with postcolonial society have found wide audiences beyond Africa—Chinua Achebe, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Ben Okri—non-fiction often takes the form of stories of exile, travel narratives, uncritical contemplations from the countryside, or numbingly worthy stories of hope in the face of adversity. (South Africa is something of an exception; politically astute memoirs by J.M. Coetzee, Zakes Mda, André Brink, and others have found large audiences from the ’80s through to today.) But the ’70s and ’80s, “years that many have, understandably, tried to forget,” were for Mahama “the years that defined my life.” His elegant memoir of those crucible decades lets us see the times that forged his generation as more than just a succession of defaults and dictators.
Ghana, as Mahama relates, was the first sub-Saharan nation to win independence, in 1957. Since then it has always occupied a privileged place among African states as a model of post-liberation success, not least thanks to its founding father, the pan-Africanist Kwame Nkrumah. Mahama describes Nkrumah—always “Dr. Nkrumah” in this book—as a “true visionary,” and indeed he was. Ghanaian independence was more than just an inspiration for other anti-colonial struggles; Nkrumah himself spent years agitating for a wholly free continent, providing aid and diplomatic help to young nations across Africa and setting up the organization now called the African Union. But Nkrumah was also, by the end of his time in power, a brutal despot: he banned opposition parties, put down strikes, locked up political opponents who sometimes died in jail, and gave himself a shiny new title—“Osagyefo,” which means “redeemer” in Twi, one of Ghana’s main languages—to go along with his position as president for life. Mahama surely knows this; he was trained as a historian, and Ghana has wrestled with Nkrumah’s mixed legacy for a generation. But he glosses over any unpleasantness. When you are the president, slagging off the father of your country just won’t do. (In fact, in its first year in power, the Mills government instituted a new public holiday, Founder’s Day, to glorify Nkrumah’s legacy.)
The strength of Mahama’s book, then, derives less from its account of Ghana’s political history—which is mostly balanced, except for the brief Nkrumah encomium—than from its evocation of an individual Ghanaian life passing through political upheaval. We see this from the very first chapter, when Nkrumah is overthrown in the titular coup. On February 24, 1966, when Mahama was seven years old, a military faction deposed the government and the provisional National Liberation Council took power. “The words I heard people speaking that day seemed to hold a certain air of mystery and urgency, especially the phrase coup d’état”—which meant nothing in English, Twi, Hausa, or the three other languages he spoke. Perhaps, he thinks, coup d’état is a new game.
Only the next day do his teachers explain that the government has been toppled and all its ministers arrested. That worries him: his father, E.A. Mahama, is a government minister, regional commissioner for the poorer north of the country. When a school official drives the boy to his father’s government residence, soldiers are encamped on the front lawn, and the house is vacant. The elder Mahama, it turns out, has been transferred to a makeshift jail, where he remains locked up for a year. “By the time my father was released from prison,” Mahama writes, “Ghana was a much different country. Not surprisingly, I was a much different boy.”
The coup obliges Mahama to grow up early, forcing him to examine small-scale iniquities in the light of larger upheavals. The merging of external politics and the politics of everyday life comes up again and again in My First Coup d’Etat, most elegantly in a vignette from his days at school. One day a new student moves into his dormitory and establishes himself as a mini-tyrant, ordering around the other students and stealing their snacks. The bullying, Mahama writes, “was our initiation rite into this new Africa, one that was changing so rapidly and radically from the Africa for which our fathers fought.” Everything, Mahama indicates with this powerful anecdote, is coming undone; the hope and relative plenty of the post-liberation years is giving way to the economic privation of the lost decades. And when Mahama finally resists the bully, the parallel to the Ghanaian political scene feels impressively unforced; the bully spares Mahama, but goes on torturing the others. Courage only goes so far. Maybe it’s a bit heavy-handed, but if at times Mahama the politician imbues passing moments with a little too much significance, Mahama the writer usually makes up for it.
After the first coup, Mahama’s father returns to Tamale from Bole, the family’s former seat in the north of the country, sets up a farm, and grows prosperous. But the elder Mahama angers the wrong guy, has his company expropriated, and finally goes into exile—first to Côte d’Ivoire, then to Nigeria. The teenage John Mahama remains in Ghana, where the thumping discos play James Brown and the Jackson 5 but never seem to have enough beer behind the bar. He goes to university in Accra, where he becomes a pretty serious Marxist, working through Capital in his professor’s apartment. And when General I.K. Acheampong—who, in another coup, overthrew Ghana’s short-lived democratic government in 1972 and who was later deposed and executed—tries to introduce constitutional reforms to forestall a return to multiparty democracy, he and his classmates join the resistance.
Mahama ends up agitating for revolution but is also “wracked with guilt” at the idea that his father might be part of the problem. When one radical student exclaims that all capitalists should be hanged, a friend of Mahama’s “shook his head slightly as if to say, Nothing is going to happen to your dad.” This introspection is hardly the sort of thing one expects from a politician’s memoir, and the scenes in which he reconciles his ideology to his circumstances are some of the book’s strongest.
But for all his engagement with the politics around him, Mahama never imagines in this book that he will do anything besides teach or run the family business. Politics is everywhere: it uproots Mahama’s family, sends him across borders (including to the Soviet Union, where his Marxist convictions die out), and molds the adolescent into a man. So I expected that the book would end with a moment of awakening—a political rally or a searing moment of injustice that leads our hero to his true calling. Instead, the book’s final note is a hesitant one. “All the decisions I have made in my life were regularly plagued with doubt,” Mahama says in an appealingly ambivalent conclusion. Even as Ghana grows stable, there is no guarantee of Ghanaian progress—just a hope for a better future plagued by constant misgivings.
It’s a sign of Mahama’s maturity as a writer that he is willing to consider his country’s future so dispassionately, and a sign of his maturity as a politician that he is willing to concede his own human frailty. But if you want an optimistic postscript, look no further than Mahama’s recent accession to the presidency: a brief, untroubled transfer of power, with none of the uncertainty seen recently in Nigeria and Malawi. If Ghana is lucky, the days of coups d’état may remain confined to the past. And if we are lucky, they will be recounted in memoirs as fine as this one.
Jason Farago is a writer and art critic based in New York.