30 December 2012

Nigeria: A Chronicle of Growth and Sensitivity


Even if the author of this remarkable memoir had not won the 2012 presidential election in Ghana it would still be regarded as one of the most sensitive and important works of modern West African literature.

The writing style is simple and delicate and the powers of recall exhibited by the author are clearly those of a talented writer. Mahama's commitment to telling the story of his family's encounters with events that informed the building of a modern state in Ghana is a unique example of adolescent recall as a vehicle for interpreting historical reality. The choice of subject matter is best symbolised by his short narrative, in the opening chapter, of the events surrounding the occurrence of the first coup d'état that overthrew the Nkrumah government in which his father (then a young leader from the neglected North) was a Minister of State.

The effect of this seminal act of political anarchy on a sensitive seven year old who had just begun to cope with separation from his beloved father at the start of his education was eventually to colour his perception of life as he journeyed from childhood to adulthood.

He strings the tale of this journey together in an irregular but vibrant narrative of random anecdotes reflecting both his personal, and Ghana's socio-political, experience in the decades between that coup and the nation's eventual return to democratic governance.

At no point in this book, though, does Mahama even hint at a personal desire to rule. Instead the work portrays the circumstances detailed in its pages as a relentless chronicle of challenges rather than of opportunities and it is only in the final chapters that the author's political concerns begin to surface.

It would be easy to list the various events and dramatic circumstances related in this book in order to encourage interest from readers but this would be doing the author a disservice. His writing style is so refreshing that any objective reviewer should simply recommend that readers experience the work for themselves. Nevertheless it would not be out of place for us to point out some particularly interesting elements of this work.

It reads with the crackling excitement and rhythm of a fictional narrative and its strategic interpretation of Ghana's experience of independence followed by military dictatorship is an impressive example of objective historical evaluation. It is clear that he has come to regard the overthrow of Nkrumah's heroic but doomed patriotic government as having been inevitable but he never states this categorically.

In other words this is a book that deals with bitter truths about the African condition with circumspection. While he hesitates to express his personal views of the events he witnessed or of those who controlled the nation's affairs in his youth in a subjective or overtly judgmental way his dedication to a populist viewpoint is clear.

According to this narrative his father was his hero and the paternal devotion to the welfare not only of his own children but also of the larger family of the community provided the author with an undying example of the relevance of service as the core value of human life. This virtue is a central leitmotif of the tale that Mahama tells and gives the work a special cachet of objective continental relevance.

Mahama's forthright admission of his disenchantment with his youthful belief that the socialist state was the ideal objective for African nations to aspire to, which came after he lived for a period in the USSR as it was changing in the years of perestroika under Gorbachev, is a surprising twist. This comes,as we indicated before, right at the end of the book, and it gives the work a political shape that might not have been as strategically weighty without the extraneous circumstance of the author's present role as Ghana's President. However it is not the abortion of an ideological presumption that this admission represents so much as a confirmation of the profound commitment to moral verity.

This strengthens the assumptions of his adherence to the paternal values. This vital element enhances the resonant poetic truth of the work both as literary achievement and as a document that delivers profound insight into the dilemma of African nation-building as it affects the lives of ordinary people.

This is the thematic core of Mahama's memoir. His greatest achievement in this work has been to succeed in making the story of a sensitive child trying to grow in a normal way in the midst of rampant political abnormality not only believable but also attractive. In order to achieve this it is apparent that the author, a consummate politician, was engaged not in creating a political apologia but in actually baring his soul as he created this work.

This is an unusual book in the pantheon of works presented by African leaders as their political memoirs mainly because it reads like a work created for the sole purpose of emotional enlightenment rather than one written to promote a personal political agenda.

This book is a labour of love. It is a love letter to the author's late father and a profound expression of love for the Ghanaian state as an ideal rather than as an accomplished reality. An interesting sidelight is the point at which in describing his first experience of "puppy love" when he becomes infatuated with a neighbouring banker's daughter he discovers his talent for writing by penning his first love letters.

Mahama is both modest and self-confident in his description of his personal responses in his teenage school years, and these aspects of his memoirs show him to be an increasingly perceptive student of human nature even in those early years. His grasp of the various national attitudes and emotional habits that he observed in both Ghana and Nigeria (where he spent a short and traumatic episode of his adolescence) is effectively illustrated.

As he approached adulthood he developed an almost proprietary sense of control of his personal responses to the growth of the Ghanaian state as it recovered from the traumatic years of economic mismanagement. These sections of the work illustrate a profound sensitivity towards, as well as tolerance of, the trials that his father, and even himself, experienced as a result of the exigencies of regime change.

Out of this there emerges a clear belief in the transformative power of communication and explains the genesis of this work. It is a superb chronicle of growth and sensitivity that translates universal themes into an African context in an inimitable manner.

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