John Mahama on Ghana, The Gambia and the ANC’s decline

Former Ghanaian president says political problems in South Africa, Nigeria and Egypt will affect the entire continent.

Ghana''s President John Dramani Mahama
Former President Mahama faced a series of protests in 2014 as Ghanaians took to the streets over high inflation, frequent power cuts, and poor roads [Francois Mori/AP]

Boston, United States – When John Mahama stepped down as president of Ghana in January 2017, he became the first in his country’s history to fail to secure a second term in office.

Critics argued that Mahama, who was nicknamed Mr Power Cut because of a series of debilitating power cuts during his term, was unable to meet the expectations of ordinary Ghanaians.

But Mahama has also been praised for the role he played during the Ebola crisis, and most recently for helping convince Yahya Jammeh, The Gambia’s president, to step down after he lost the presidential elections in December 2016.

Al Jazeera spoke to Mahama about Ghana at 60, the possibility of justice in The Gambia post-Jammeh, and how the calls for Jacob Zuma to step down in South Africa may affect the continent.  

Al Jazeera: Roughly a decade after Ghana’s independence in 1957, Ghanian author Ayi Kwei Armah wrote the novel The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born, in which a nameless man struggles against corruption in post-colonial Ghana. Have things changed?

John Mahama: I believe the ‘beautyful ones’ are being born every day. Each generation prepares itself to take over from the next. I feel confident that the next generation is preparing itself to step into our shoes just as we stepped into the shoes of our fathers.

I don't think we should be celebrating each time a peaceful transition takes places. This is what is supposed to happen.

by John Mahama, Ghana's former president

What we need to do now is accelerate and improve the lives of our people with a growing economy.

And making sure we provide better social services to our people, ensuring that they have the opportunities for improving themselves through education, I think that is happening in Ghana today.

Al Jazeera: This year marks 60 years of Ghanaian independence. How much progress has the country made in that time?

Mahama: I believe that in 60 years one would expect us to have made more progress than we have. But considering the continent we come from, even maintaining Ghana as a united entity, not in conflict and posting positive development is an achievement.

I think that today Ghana is positioning itself as one of the potential emerging countries on the continent.

Ghana, 60 years after independence

Al Jazeera: When you stepped down, Ghana experienced a peaceful transition of power.

Mahama: I find it surprising because I think it should be the norm. I don’t think we should be celebrating each time a peaceful transition takes places. This is what is supposed to happen.

And I think this is increasingly happening in Africa. It happened in Nigeria when President Jonathan stepped away and it happened here in Ghana

Al Jazeera: But it didn’t happen in The Gambia. When Jammeh eventually stepped down, he was allowed to leave, going into exile in Equatorial Guinea. So, did democracy really win in The Gambia? 

Mahama: I do think that it is still a win for the Gambian people even though it was the negotiations that created the opportunity for Jammeh to leave. I think this gives the new government a free hand and opportunity to do what they have to do.

I don’t think it would have been very convenient for them to take over power with Jammeh within Gambia and his party breathing down the necks of the new government.

The new Gambian government want to go the route of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission(TRC) where people come out and vent the abuses they have suffered. Once that process is completed and a report is presented to the president, he can decide what to do to bring closure to people who have suffered abuses.

I don’t know what direction he will take but I think a TRC is appropriate. It’s happened in South Africa and many countries including Ghana. There are a lot of lessons that The Gambia can share with the rest of Africa.

Yahya Jammeh, The Gambia's former president, ruled for 22 years [Carlos Garcia Rawlins/Reuters]
Yahya Jammeh, The Gambia’s former president, ruled for 22 years [Carlos Garcia Rawlins/Reuters]

Al Jazeera: 20 years on, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa isn’t necessarily seen as having provided justice.

Mahama: Unfortunately, the reality of life is that there will never be complete closure for everybody. People who have gone through the process have felt satisfied that someone has listened to them, and have even reconciled with their perpetrators. In Rwanda, people live side-by-side with people who persecuted them during the genocide. They have gone through a process of acceptance and apology. If it is a means of bringing closure, I think it’s good. Not everyone will get closure but it doesn’t mean the process has failed.

Al Jazeera: Is justice important for closure?

Mahama: I don’t think anyone should dictate to the Gambian people, it’s for them to decide. There will be a report and the president and his cabinet will have to decide what they want to do. People outside the continent will say he needs to be sent to the International Criminal Court.

Africans feel unfairly targeted because these atrocities happen all over the world and no one is trying to arrest these leaders. If they can find closure in The Gambia that’s fine, if they can’t, it’s up to the Gambian people to decide what to do.

Gambia: A lesson for African dictators

Al Jazeera: It took the involvement of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), which gave Jammeh a deadline to step down or risk being forcibly removed, before he stepped aside. Isn’t that a form of intervention?

Mahama: The community has to want it badly, but the struggle is for the country in particular. The outside communities can only help the process. I think what ECOWAS did is an example for the rest of Africa but it isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution.

The Gambia is a relatively small country. If Nigeria decided to behave badly I don’t know if ECOWAS could send forces in. Circumstances in The Gambia were amenable to the kind of solution that was done. It was a carrot and stick solution. We had two mediation missions into The Gambia and spoke to all the parties to achieve a resolution.

When South Africa is going through what it's going through, the crisis and near-recession, it affects the rest of the continent, especially the sub-region.

by John Mahama, Ghana's former president

ECOWAS applied the stick and went in, not to use force or fire shots, but to show that ECOWAS was prepared to go to that extent. When that happened we sent in the final mission which was President Alpha Condé of Guinea and President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz of Mauritania.

We chose them because they were closer to President Jammeh and it would be easier to get them to negotiate for him to leave power. They did the final negotiations where it was decided for him to leave the country. 

Al Jazeera: There are many shakeups taking place on the continent. For instance, President Jacob Zuma is facing pressure to step down. What do you make of the events taking place there?

Mahama: Countries like Ghana have a strong affinity for the African National Congress (ANC) as it was the main instrument in fighting against apartheid. We all celebrated South Africa’s liberation from apartheid. Nelson Mandela is an icon to us all.

We cannot afford to not be concerned with what is happening in South Africa. They recently even lost Johannesburg in the local elections. This is something that should not happen.

It is obvious that the ANC is losing ground and I wish they would get a grip and turn things around.

I don’t anticipate them losing power in the next elections [in 2019], but there’s a groundswell of dissatisfaction and I hope our comrades in the ANC do a proper reflection and correct things before they get worse.

What can Ghana teach South Africa about neocolonialism?

Al Jazeera: Does this have an impact on the rest of Africa?

Mahama: It does. I have said that South Africa, Nigeria and Egypt are the biggest economies in Africa and they have a certain responsibility to drive investment and prosperity in the continent.

When South Africa is going through what it’s going through, the crisis and near-recession, it affects the rest of the continent, especially the sub-region.

These larger economies have a responsibility to drive prosperity. It happened in South-East Asia. Japan’s prosperity is what’s driven a lot of progress in South-East Asia. China, Korea and Vietnam are all invested in this.

The bigger economies have the responsibility in their geographical areas. I think in Africa these three countries need to get their act together to drive integration and investments. We all continue to watch what’s happening in these countries and hope that they turn things around.

Ghana elections: President-elect speaks to Al Jazeera
Source: Al Jazeera