13 July 2012

Ghana: John Mahama's 'First Coup d'Etat'

book review

With the intriguing title of "My First Coup D'état", Ghana's current Vice President, John Dramani Mahama has taken a plunge into the often turbulent waters of book authorship and publishing. A number of years in the making, the book made its debut in New York this month to a generally favourable reception.

On Tuesday, the Vice President, accompanied by family, friends and media, personally launched the book at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, in Harlem, New York, with readings from the book, a "Conversation" with Andrew Solomon (National Book Award winner), a Q&A session and book signing conclusion.

The book was sold out from the Schomburg bookstore and extra copies had to be rushed in from another bookstore nearby.

The book, from a sitting Vice President would no doubt give a fillip to the struggling Ghanaian book writing sector. He has already had interactions with various Ghanaian literary groups and personalities, including the Ghana Association of Writers (GAW), of which he is now a member, on how to encourage reading, writing and publishing of books in Ghana.

It is common knowledge that reading and writing have seen a dramatic decline in Ghana as the educational system has not been very kind to the liberal arts. Combined with the new multi-media culture of the so-called social networking media, many young people hardly touch books these days and the result has been catastrophic, to be seen in the atrocious writing and comprehension skills of the current generation of school going youngsters, all the way from the Primary to University levels.

The book may be a personal triumph to the Vice President, but its significance is wider as a vehicle to engender Ghana's literary renaissance, as can be seen in the titles from Ghanaian writers in the last decade that are trickling back to the bookshelves.

The Ghana Association of Writers and Ghanaian Centre of PEN International, have reading and writing programmes targeted at Ghanaian schools, for in the end it is Ghanaian schools that stand to benefit from any resurgence in Ghanaian writing.

In writing the book, the Vice President must have been mindful of that, as he interacted with Ghanaian literary giants like Ama Ata-Aidoo, Atukwei Okai, Kofi Anyidoho and others, whose writings are included in literature syllabi for Ghanaian schools.

The sting in the tail of "My First Coup D'Etat" can be seen in the subtitle of "And Other Stories From The Lost Decades of Africa".

It weaves a fascinating vignette of the author's life and national and international events from the mid-sixties of the last century when Ghana experience d her first coup d'etat, to the present.

Sometimes playful, generally humorous, but mostly serious, it is an exercise in what Africa got wrong, what Africa could have done differently and certainly, what Africa must not do again!

In his review, Chinua Achebe, the doyen of African writing had this to say: "With crisp, yet sweeping prose, John Mahama's memoire, My first Coup D'Etat provides insight into Ghana's and by extension, Africa's struggle to weather its historical burden and engage with a world much removed from her dilemma.

Without sentimentality or condescension, he exposes homegrown African pathologies and helps us understand several contradictions of our postcolonial condition. His is a much welcome work of immense relevance to African studies and deserves serious critical attention."

John Dramani Mahama's relevance in the context above is to be seen in his intellectual capacity to distance partisan politics from the pages of the book. Politics did come up during the Q&A, which he skillfully parried with the answer that he is a social democrat and left of centre and nothing more!

He had earlier explained his socialist antecedents, from an Nkrumahist father to a university exposure where he consumed left wing literature to his current "pragmatic" position on national and international realities. For example, on American bases on the African continent, it was not a straightforward yes or no.

Ghana, he said, would join the world to fight terrorism, drug trafficking and other cross-border crimes. That would mean collaboration, for no one country can do it alone, and if that meant bases, "so be it". That was a courageous and honest admission.

And what about Election 2012? Yes, he admitted, there was a lot of tension and some of the language inappropriate, but Ghana would sail through and become an even shinier example for Africa. And the media: As a politician, if you survive from 6.00am to about 10am daily, then you would survive the whole day!

My First Coup D'Etat, would have its detractors, but as a first attempt, especially from the pen of an active politician, the Ghanaian literary scene can only be enriched by it. The literary consultant was Meri Nana Ama Danquah, a Ghanaian author, and the book was published by Bloomsbury, an international publishing company. A Ghanaian launch has been planned before the end of year.

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