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My First Coup d’Etat

ISSUE:  Summer 2012
The author in his youth. 
(Courtesy of the author from Mahama Family Albums)
The author in his youth. (Courtesy of the author from Mahama Family Albums)

The world maps of my youth were always flat. They depicted an Earth that was stretched and distorted, with no topography, no shaded relief. The only markings were the names of continents and oceans, the names of countries and their capital cities, the names of rivers and mountain ranges.

According to those maps, the places I knew best did not exist. They were swaths of light-colored space with no definition, nothing to show the vast forests or plains, the huge scarp that my brother Alfred and I used to scale as children so we could hunt. I would look at the other unlabeled areas of the map and wonder what and who existed in that space.

There has always been something about the Earth that has beguiled me. I used to study the maps that were posted on the walls of my classrooms and printed in the pages of the atlas my father kept in his study. After our nation’s independence, my father, Emmanuel Adama Mahama, was the first Member of the Ghanaian Parliament from the Northern region.

Still, I could barely start memorizing the names and shapes of the countries before the map I was using became obsolete. That’s how quickly the entire world was changing during my childhood. Borders were being redrawn; countries were being formed and re-formed, and some of them were assuming new names, especially in postcolonial Africa.

What remained the same throughout were the contours of each continent, like the curve of western Africa and the pointed tip of South America. I noticed that the landmasses, though separated by enormous bodies of water, fit perfectly together, as though they could be one, or perhaps had even been. This was before I learned about Pangaea, the supercontinent that is believed to have existed before the continental drift that ultimately led to the configuration we currently know.

In sixth form, which for Americans would equal an educational period between high school and college, I chose geography as one of my subjects of study. The information I learned expanded my knowledge of the Earth and made me feel a sense of connection to other countries and continents that I hadn’t before. I formed a broad feeling of kinship to the other people of the world, people I realized I might never meet or know.

When I arrived at the University of Ghana in 1979 to begin my freshman year, I was steeped in disappointment. I hadn’t been granted the courses of study that I’d indicated were my first and second choices. I’d hoped to study business administration: that had been my first choice. I’d chosen it because it was the most popular major at the university, one to which prospective employers were said to respond. Other than that, I knew very little about business administration and had very little interest in it.

My second choice was law. It wasn’t something for which I held a burning passion, but it was practical. University was a time for serious study, a time to prepare for life. I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life, but from all that I’d been told, a degree in law provided a strong platform for nearly every profession.

History, which was my third choice, the one to which I’d been assigned, was not discussed with the same gravity. I had always enjoyed studying history. In primary school I’d been given an award in history, and along with geo­graphy and economics, it had been my other course of sixth form. Yet history as a university major was said to limit a graduate’s career options. It was too specific and offered no knowledge or skills that could be immediately applied outside of the classroom, in the workforce.

I eventually grew to consider my assignment to history as a blessing in disguise and recognized that the knowledge I would gain from its study would carry me far beyond the classroom and workaday existence. However, in those first weeks of university, I felt as though I’d been cheated out of the things I wanted.

My disappointment and that general feeling of having been cheated also stemmed from the fact that in addition to not being granted my top course choices, I was not granted my top choices in halls of residence.

At the time, there were five halls of residence at the University of Ghana—Commonwealth Hall, Akuafo Hall, Legon Hall, Mensah Sarbah Hall, and Volta Hall. Volta was the all-female hall. Mensah Sarbah was a mixed hall; women occupied one wing of the building, and the rest was all-male.

Legon Hall was my first choice because I was told it was peaceful and quiet, a hall of gentlemen. My next choice was Mensa Sarbah, which I’d been told was beautiful. The residents of that hall were called the Vikings and were said to be extremely good at sports. Third was Akuafo, which was dedicated to the farmers of Ghana. My fourth and final choice was Commonwealth, and that was where I was assigned.

Commonwealth Hall had a controversial reputation. Its residents were called the “VANDALs.” The acronym VANDAL stands for “Vivacious, Affable, Neighbourly, Devoted/Dedicated, Altruistic, and Loyal.” The boys at Commonwealth Hall were said to actually be unruly, rowdy, insulting, and provocative. They paraded on campus virtually half-naked, and they kept a shrine in the hall to Bacchus, the Greek god of wine. Suffice it to say, I did not want to live there.

Unbeknownst to me, Commonwealth was historically one of the most radical of all the halls of residence. A lot of the political foment, activism, and rebellion that took place on campus was usually hatched by the residents of Commonwealth. Because of this, the university officials had devised an unwritten rule to balance out the types of personalities and temperaments of the students in the hall.

Students whose first choice was Commonwealth were assumed to be of the same ilk, so they were automatically assigned to a more subdued hall. Meanwhile, students like me, who were resistant to being in Commonwealth and placed it last in their list of choices, were the ones assigned there.

The University of Ghana was built on a hill. There is a long, rectangular pond at the front of the entrance. Standing there, facing forward, you can see straight to the top of the hill. When you pass through the main gates, there is a wide boulevard that travels up the steep incline. The boulevard ends at the steps of Commonwealth, forking into two roads that wrap around the enormous building and then continue upward toward the administration’s offices.

Freshman students arrived a week earlier than the rest of the student population to go through an orientation. A lot of the final-year students were also on campus, working on their dissertations and theses.

On my first day, I stood at the base of the sweeping concrete stairs. There were a number of final-year students hanging around, singing. They were dressed in strange attire. Some of them had leaves around their necks. One person was wearing a bra and panties. A few were wearing their trousers with one leg down and the other rolled up or cut off into shorts. They were there as our freshman welcoming committee, to help us carry our bags up the stairs to the porter’s lodge, where we were to sign in.

After we’d climbed the stairs and were standing at the entrance of Commonwealth Hall, I noticed that a coat of arms was affixed to the top of the arched doorway. Embossed on the coat of arms were the words Truth Stands, which is the hall’s motto.

It was a cardinal moment. I stood there, having just arrived at this preeminent Ghanaian university, looking at the coat of arms and the hall’s motto. I felt humbled; I felt filled with purpose. It occurred to me that the hundreds of people who had walked through the doors of that hall had uncovered the truth of their lives. I was determined to do the same.

I later learned that the motto was taken from the poem “Satire 3” by the English poet John Donne. This, to me, made the motto all the more profound.

To stand inquiring right, is not to stray;
To sleep, or run wrong, is. On a huge hill,
Cragged and steep, Truth stands, and he that will
Reach her, about must and about must go,
And what the hill’s suddenness resists, win so.

During a controversial referendum that was held at the close of my sixth-form year, my other socialist-leaning friends and I nearly got clobbered while trying to protect the ballot boxes on our campus from voting irregularities. Later, it had been announced that the referendum for Union Government yielded an overwhelming “yes” vote, but the public could not be fooled. Even the announcement of the results was mired in controversy. There was too much unrest for things to continue as they had been. In 1978, General Acheampong, who had led the first coup d’etat, was forced to resign by his own Supreme Military Council—a military coup of a military coup-maker.

In July 1978, Lieutenant General Fred Akuffo, who had been the number-two person in the SMC under General Acheampong, took over as head of state. With the exception of the names of the rulers, nothing much had changed. People were still not able to afford essential commodities. The practice of manipulative bribes and con-artistry—called kalabule —persisted, so the nation was operating on an artificial economy that was driven by a thriving black market. In 1979, there was another coup, led by a young flight lieutenant named Jerry John Rawlings, who set up an interim government, the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council (AFRC). Flight Lieutenant Rawlings told the people of Ghana that their goal was to conduct a “house-cleaning” exercise and then promptly return the country back to civilian rule. Party politics was now allowed.

After the 1966 coup, my father, a former member of the ousted Ghanaian Parliament, had been banned from participating in politics or holding any political appointment for ten years. That period of time had already elapsed, but when my father wrote what was supposed to have been a letter of praise to the then head of state, advising him to “leave when the applause is loudest,” his intentions were misunderstood, and he found himself facing the possibility of detention again. It soured him on politics.

But these were new times, with new possibilities.

The Convention People’s Party had been refashioned into the People’s National Party (PNP). My father, as a senior member of the original party, was persuaded to help them select a suitable flag bearer, one who was capable of winning the election. Unable to resist a call for assistance, particularly if it concerned the advancement of the nation, my father reentered political life, but only as a key adviser.

At the same time that my father was reentering politics, I was being initiated into a political life, albeit at the student level. In those days, the student body was one of the most active unofficial political organizations. We were very conscious of what was going on in Ghana and in the rest of the world, and we participated in all kinds of demonstrations.

There were protests against nuclear weapons in Africa; there were pro-Cuba protests and antiapartheid protests. We students in Ghana stood in solidarity with our brothers and sisters in South Korea who had staged an uprising against their dictatorship, as well as our brothers and sisters in Iran who had revolted against the Shah. We held placards and raised our voices in support of Palestine. And, of course, we picketed, demonstrated, and did whatever else we could to bring attention to our own causes in Ghana, be it an issue within the university system or our discontentment with governmental policy.

Living in Commonwealth, which I came to regard as the best hall on campus, coaxed the natural activist in me to come out. There was an ivory tower priggishness and orderliness that went along with university life. It perpetuated the status quo. Life inside of Commonwealth was the exact opposite. It encouraged the formation of opinions and the expression of individuality.

When it came time to stand up for their rights or the rights of others, the Commonwealth Hall Boys rose to the occasion. They took their motto to heart and stood for whatever they firmly believed was truth. I’d never really been expressive. I had strong opinions, but mostly I kept my inner thoughts to myself. Living in Commonwealth Hall helped me to start speaking out because I felt relaxed enough to be myself.

My burgeoning political views and activism at times clashed with my father’s views, especially when it came to government affairs. As a senior member of the party, Dad felt that given the mess they’d inherited, the government was heading in the right direction, making solid long-term decisions.

Acheampong’s Yentua! policy of refusing to pay any of Ghana’s previous debt had shattered Ghana’s economic standing in the world and its relationships with international aid organizations. The new government was having ongoing conversations with the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank about entering into a program that would improve the financing of the budget and inject fresh capital into the system to restore the deteriorating infrastructure.

From our student-activist purview, change wasn’t happening fast enough, so we took the government to task by marching and demonstrating every chance we could. My participation in these activities caused arguments between Dad and me. When I’d return home during a break from university, he’d ask, “What the hell did you kids think you’d accomplish with that protest?” I would launch into an impassioned rant about the wrongs of the government. My father would just shake his head.

“Things don’t happen overnight,” he would explain. “Some of these policies are already in place, but it might take a while before you can see the results.”

“Long-term changes are fine,” I would argue, “but we need immediate changes, too. Something that will put money in people’s pockets so they can eat and live.” We’d argue back and forth, until he grew tired of trying to explain what he realized my youthful fervor and political naïveté prevented me from comprehending.

However far apart we grew in our politics and ideologies, my father and I remained close in our relationship. There was nothing I couldn’t ask him for; nothing he wouldn’t do to help or support me. His love and presence were unshakable.

I’d been in a leadership role before as a prefect, but that was an appointed role, not an elected one. Every hall of residence at the university had a junior common room, a JCR. Every JCR had executives, who served as the leadership for that hall of residence. All the other halls held JCR elections once a year. Commonwealth Hall being Commonwealth Hall, its residents held JCR election three times a year, once during each term. It was their brand of democracy. They believed that to elect an executive who would serve an entire year was oppressive. This way, if an executive wasn’t performing well, the hall residents would not have to suffer with the poor leadership for too long.

I decided to run for JCR vice president. I stood against a tough opponent. He was a VANDAL through and through. He was involved in the choir and just about every other Commonwealth Hall activity one can imagine. People knew him well. They felt he was one of them and could understand their concerns. Though I was a general part of the Commonwealth Hall community, I didn’t take part in many of the activities, particularly not the choir, because the members were a bit wild and their repertoire was full of profane songs.

The mode of campaigning was basic grassroots, going from room to room meeting people, telling them who you were and what you intended to do if elected, then asking them to please vote for you. Many people told me flat-out that they would not vote for me, and they even explained why— because I was not involved enough in Commonwealth Hall life. I lost the election, but it was a great learning experience. I had been focused squarely on my own goals and visions as a candidate.

After the loss, I came away with an understanding that in these types of contests what is most important is a candidate’s knowledge of the electorate and its expectations in the selection of a leader. I carried that knowledge with me the next time I decided to run for an office.

During my second year at university, I ran for the office of secretary of the Students Representative Council. And that time, I won.

If my exploits outside the classroom pulled me headlong into what I considered a whole new world, my instruction inside the classroom enlightened me to the fact that it was a world predicated on prior mistakes and achievements. The history I learned filled in the blank spaces of the maps I’d studied in my youth; it gave definition and meaning to the countries that previously were nothing more than geometric shapes with names. It also gave me a context within which to place my own country, a context much larger than I’d ever imagined.

We studied Socrates, Archimedes, and Galileo. We learned about the Nubians, the Moors, the Incas, the Aztecs, the Mayans, the Greeks, and the Romans. We learned about the Chinese dynasties and Japan during the Jomon period. We learned about Mesopotamia, between the Tigris and the Euphrates, the rise and fall of the Sumerians, Akkadians, Babylonians, Assyrians, and Hittites, probably the first builders of chariots.

To know what and where Carthage, Thrace, Constantinople, Cuzco, Thebes, and Timbuktu were is to know who and where you are. Without first understanding the empires of the Songhai, Mali, Ghana, Kushite, Luba, and Mwene Mutapa or researching the imperialist Scramble for Africa and the divisiveness and devastation it caused, I would never have been able to arrive at an understanding of Ghana and the struggles my country was facing. History sparked within me an awareness of the continuum within which we all exist.

The maps of my youth became quite symbolic of my view of the world, which back then was also flat and stretched, ignorantly distorted and without definition.

I was no longer as concerned about how my time and studies in university would translate into solid employment prospects. I was more excited about the theories I was formulating and debating with my socialist comrades, the relationships and leadership abilities I was developing at Commonwealth Hall, and the truths I was learning in my history courses. And I knew, without anybody having to tell me, that eventually all of those things would stand for something worthwhile.

We seemed to have crossed the line. Ghana had descended to a place from which there appeared to be no return. It was like a game of political musical chairs. Acheampong was gone; Akuffo was gone. During Flight Lieutenant Rawlings and the AFRC’s “house-cleaning” exercise, the former military heads of state along with five other top military leaders were executed. Other members of the military thought to have been engaged in corruption were placed in detention.

Civilians engaged in acts of hoarding were arrested.

Overall, Ghanaians were supportive of the coup and the subsequent actions taken by the AFRC to rid the country of all the corruption and negative practices that had been pulling it down.

The feelings of bitterness and rage that the society had been suppressing were let loose, creating an atmosphere of vengeance and feeding the desire for retaliation. The general sentiment was that blood should flow and that people should be made to pay for the suffering Ghanaians had endured. It was a dangerous climate of mean-spiritedness. When the AFRC handed over power to Dr. Hilla Limann, presidential candidate for the People’s National Party, it had been with a caveat, that if his administration did not perform in such a way that would restore stability and promote economic growth, they would return and remove him from office.

Though my father was at first hesitant to reenter politics, as time wore on he engaged wholeheartedly. He felt that Dr. Limann’s government was a chance for Ghana to start anew.

Not everyone agreed with him. There were mixed feelings about Dr. Limann’s leadership, even within the party. Though opinions differed greatly about whether or not the administration was on the right course to make the sort of rebound the country needed to make, citizens took comfort in the fact that Ghana was now back under constitutional rule. If it turned out that Dr. Limann and his government did not meet their expectations, there was always the option of voting them out of power.

After a little over two years of watching the government flounder, Flight Lieutenant Rawlings staged a coup on December 31, 1981, and seized power from the Limann administration.

This time, the public’s reaction was mixed. The revolving door of leadership was making Ghanaians restive.

In late 1981, around the time of the coup, I was in the midst of my national service duty. Upon graduation from university, as a means of giving back to society, students who had benefitted from the free education provided by the government are obligated to work for a certain period of time as an act of national service. Back then, the requirement was two years.

National service personnel could be dispatched to whatever region or industry in which their talents and services were needed. A small stipend was given to cover living expenses; other than that, national service personnel did not receive a salary.

Having graduated from the University of Ghana as a history major, I was sent to teach the subject to students at Ghanasco, the secondary school in Tamale I’d attended. My friend William, whom I’d met in university, was also sent to Ghanasco to fulfill his national service duty. William, who’d majored in political science, had also been a resident of Commonwealth Hall. He was raucous, good-natured, and fun-loving.

William and I were provided with accommodation in one of the masters’ bungalows. They were some of the low-cost houses that had been built by the Acheampong administration. Ours had three bedrooms, a large living room, and a kitchen. It even had a little porch, where William and I used to sit and watch the sunset while drinking pito, an alcoholic beverage made with millet and sorghum. The bungalows were located at the edge of the campus, a distance from the dormitories and main lecture halls.

Most of the administrators and teachers with whom I’d been acquainted during my years at Ghanasco were no longer there.

My brother Eben was a student at Ghanasco at the time I arrived to begin my national service. Eben, who was part of the younger crop of Mahama children, was jovial and cherubic. Living on the Ghanasco campus together gave Eben and me a chance to interact more and get to know each other better.

William and I made the most of our national service years. We were university graduates, young men without commitments. We had come of age, come into our own, and were testing the limits and privileges of that newfound agency. At the end of each month when we received our stipends, we’d immediately set aside the amount that we had to give the school matron in order to receive meals for the coming month. The rest of the money was ours to spend whichever way we wanted, so of course we spent it aimlessly, having a good time.

Every weekend, William and I would go to a disco. The country had been placed on an eight o’clock curfew, which was being strictly enforced by the military. This meant that discos opened and closed earlier. We’d finish teaching our courses and rush over to one of the discos in town. Most of them opened well before four o’clock. By six o’clock, when people were done with their day’s work and ready to relax, the discos would be packed. At half-past seven, everyone would scurry to pay their check, collect their belongings, and set off to reach their destination before curfew.

There was a shortage of beer in the country, and discos were the only places where people could be guaranteed an ice-cold glass. The gate fee that patrons paid to enter a disco included the price of one bottle of beer. If you wanted a second bottle, you couldn’t simply buy one; you’d have to go outside and pay another gate fee, which would entitle you to another beer.

William and I spent most of our stipends going to discos and restaurants. Rarely were we able to make the money stretch for more than a week or two. The second half of each month usually found us broke, sitting in our bungalow chatting or reading.

It would be an understatement to say that people in Ghana were struggling to make ends meet. The average Ghanaian was fighting to survive. It was a time of scarcity. There was a shortage of most everything, and it forced people to be inventive, to turn survival into an art.

Food was difficult to come by, particularly in the urban areas where it was not grown. Even if you had money, which a lot of Ghanaians did not, you might not be able to find any food to buy. People rationed their portions, eating only enough to skim the surface of their hunger. Women started improvising: cooking with new leaves that had not been used before.

Meat and fish that had previously been undesirable was suddenly in demand because of accessibility. Stockfish, a type of sun-dried fish popularly called kpanla, imported mostly from South America and considered a delicacy in Nigeria but not well-liked in Ghana, was one of those.

As a result of the famine and the general lack of access to food, a large number of people became so emaciated that their collarbones protruded through their skin.

Ghanaians, with their inimitable sense of humor, even through the grimmest of circumstances, began referring to the condition as “Rawlings chain” or a “Rawlings necklace.”

There was also a problem with every mode of transportation—including walking. There were no shoes available on the market, so people were reduced to making them out of used car tires. Vehicles were also not available on the market, either new or secondhand. If you owned a vehicle and it developed a fault, it would be next to impossible to find the parts for it to be repaired.

Because the government also could not afford to maintain their vehicles, people either walked to work or stood in long queues for hours waiting for the public transport buses, which had often broken down. Roads were not being maintained. They were dusty and riddled with potholes.

International events were also contributing to the severity of Ghana’s woes. A major oil crisis had thrown residents of even the most developed nations into a state of panic and spurred hoarding. Even in America, the queues at filling stations stretched for blocks. In Ghana, the fuel was rationed. Taxi drivers would coast down hills to conserve whatever little bit they had in their tanks. When their fuel levels were too low to propel the vehicle uphill, they would not hesitate to ask their passenger to get out and push.

Everything was in short supply. Every container that could store water was filled and set aside for the times when the taps were not flowing. Once we’d gone through every drop that was in those containers, we would scrounge for water anywhere we could find it. Sometimes a day or two would go by when we couldn’t find any with which to have our baths or wash our clothes.

My father’s house was in an area of Tamale called Agric Ridge, which was in proximity to the water supply company. The taps flowed with more regularity there. At Ghanasco, Dad had allowed me to use one of his cars that was still operational. During the times when water was not flowing on campus and we had run out of what had been stored, if there was fuel in the car, William and I would drive to my father’s house to wash our clothes and have baths. We would pile all of our empty containers into the car so that we could refill them at Dad’s house. If there wasn’t any fuel in the car, we would walk the five miles or so we could at least have our baths.

It all seems now like the worst of nightmares, the kind from which you awake all the more appreciative of the safety and comfort of your reality. But that was our reality, and since we had no alternatives we did the only thing we could, we lived it.

The military was operating in a state of anarchy, writing its own rules, sometimes at random, and arresting people who broke them. The punishments they meted out to civilians were cruel and at times even deadly. In many ways it was even worse than before, when Acheampong and Akuffo were in power.

Military brutality was, perhaps, worse in Tamale than anywhere else in the country because of the presence of so many garrisons, especially in relation to the size of the civilian population. We had the Bawah Barracks, where the airborne forces were based; we had the Kamina Barracks, which was the base of the Sixth Battalion of infantry; we had the Kaladan Barracks, which was yet another military installation; and we had the Armed Forces Recruit Training Centre, where newly recruited soldiers were brought.

The soldiers in Tamale drove around haughtily in Pinzgauers, a type of British all-terrain troop-carrier, intoxicated with the power they had over people. They could stop anyone at any time for any reason. Their actions guided only by their own discretion.

One group of soldiers became notorious for their acts of barbarism. They came to be known as the “Seven Gladiators.” The very sight of them was enough to make your heart stop. They strapped bandoliers filled with bullets around their shoulders as if they were guerrillas fighting jungle warfare.

Horror stories about their atrocities circulated through town. There was one that that made everyone fear the unmistakable sound of an oncoming Pinzgauer. Someone had reported a woman to the military. They’d accused her of hoarding cloth. The Seven Gladiators went to the woman’s home to arrest her. They searched her house and found some wax-printed cloth. She explained to them that it was not for commercial sale; it was her personal collection. It is a tradition in many Ghanaian ethnic groups for a dowry to be presented upon marriage. In our culture, more often than not these dowries are gifts given by the groom and his family to the bride and her family.

The Seven Gladiators did not believe the woman—or did not give a damn either way. They arrested the woman and her husband, led them at gunpoint into their Pinzgauer, and drove off, ostensibly to the barracks. Somewhere along the way, they stopped the Pinzgauer. They told the woman they were releasing her and ordered her to disappear. “Run,” one of the Seven Gladiators told her. “Vanish before we change our minds.”

The woman turned and started to run in the direction of her home. The Seven Gladiators watched her for a few minutes. Just as the woman was disappearing into the distance, one of the Gladiators fired at her. They started to drive away. The woman’s husband was understandably traumatized. He started screaming hysterically.

Initially the Seven Gladiators ignored him, but when his screaming didn’t abate, they decided to deal with him.

“Oh, you want to go and save your wife?” one of the Seven taunted. Responding to the cue, the Gladiator who was driving stopped the Pinzgauer.

“Get down,” the first Gladiator said to the husband. “Go save your wife.”

The man hesitantly got out of the vehicle. Frightened that what had been done to his wife would be done to him, the man walked backward, stumbling.

“What? You won’t go?” the Gladiator asked him. Suddenly the man became afraid that they would fire at him if he didn’t turn around and run, so he did. He ran and he ran until he heard the gunshot and felt himself falling onto the ground.

Luckily for the man, a passerby who was rushing home to make curfew spotted him lying in a pool of his own blood.

The passerby pulled over, picked up the injured man, and put him in his car. Farther down the road they found the woman, also lying in a pool of blood. The passerby stopped and picked her up as well, and he drove the couple to Tamale Hospital.

The man lived; his wife did not. By the time they arrived at the hospital, she was dead. The story about the woman accused of hoarding cloth was especially shocking because of the senselessness of her death. Eventually it took the intervention of the chairman of the PNDC to disarm the Seven Gladiators.

Times remained both economically and politically uncertain.

Often on my father’s farm at Tamale, my brothers Peter and Alfred and I would take the rifles and shoot wild rabbits and birds, usually partridges and guinea fowls, and carry them home with us to be cooked in a nice meal. When it came to shooting, Peter was better than all of us.

During one of my long vacations, Dad and several of our siblings were at the house in Accra, so Peter was looking after the farm in Tamale. When school closed, I stayed in Tamale to help Peter.

Dad had a rifle that he favored most when hunting. It was a .22-caliber semiautomatic with a scope and 24-round magazine. Somehow the scope got dropped and the crosshairs broke. Dad ordered a new scope from a company that was located abroad, but he left for Accra before it arrived.

Because Peter was running the farm while Dad was gone, that rifle was in his possession. He’d been using it, even without the scope, when he went to hunt.

The new scope arrived by express parcel service shortly after I had returned home from Ghanasco. Peter wanted to align the new scope to the rifle barrel, and he needed my help. Ordinarily this is something that’s done at a shooting range. Since there wasn’t one anywhere in the vicinity, we decided to improvise. We got a piece of paper, drew a round target on it with the bull’s-eye, and stuck it to a piece of wood, which we placed on a stand. Peter got another stand for the rifle and placed it at a range of about 250 feet from the target. We then began to zero the scope.

The rifle was equipped with elevation and windage knobs to facilitate the process of zeroing and help create a more precise shot. I was responsible for marking the target and reading out the instructions to Peter. I was supposed to stand directly behind the tree, which was directly behind the piece of wood onto which we’d tacked the target. Anytime Peter was going to fire a shot, I would go to my assigned post behind the tree.

After Peter had squeezed off his shot, I would signal him to ensure it was safe before dutifully walking to the target to note where the bullet had entered. I would point my finger at the spot. Peter would use the location of my finger and the bull’s-eye mark to determine the direction in which he needed to adjust the scope. When he was done, I would use a pen to cross out the bullet hole so that when he fired again I would be able to distinguish the new hole from the old ones. That was my role.

Peter had fired maybe five or six shots already. He was about to fire another. I was walking to my post behind the tree when I remembered that I hadn’t crossed out the last bullet hole. If I didn’t cross it out, we wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between his last shot and the one he was about to fire. I quickly went back to cross out the hole.

While I was bent over the target, I felt something brush up against my cheek in that small bridge of space between my nose and my eye. I thought it was an insect or a cricket. I instinctively dropped the pen to swat it off. I think that’s when the sound of the shot registered in my mind, at the same time I was touching my cheek and realizing that the flesh somehow felt different against my fingertips. It was unusually rough. I pulled my hand away and looked at my fingers, expecting to maybe find an insect. There was nothing.

My skin still felt uncomfortable, so I rubbed my cheek again. This time when I removed my hand, there was blood. It all happened within a matter of seconds. I didn’t make the link between the blood on my face and the sound of the shot I’d heard. I just kept rubbing my cheek, and the more I rubbed, the more the blood flowed.

After the gun had gone off and Peter saw me standing there at the target rubbing my face, with blood streaming down my cheek, he screamed and came running to me.

“John, are you hurt?” he asked. “Are you hurt?” It was then that two and two became four and I put it together that I’d been shot.

“I don’t know,” I replied. At that point, everything I’d ever seen get shot, whether on the farm or on television, had died. In my mind I believed that if you got shot, you died. I thought I was in the midst of dying or already dead, but I could hear Peter talking to me. His voice sounded far away, like the final wave of an echo. Nevertheless, I could hear it. Would that be possible if I was dead?

“Let’s go, let’s go, let’s go, let’s go,” Peter cried while dragging me to the car. When we got in the car, he took off his shirt and gave it to me to stanch the flow of blood. I pressed the shirt to my cheek. I remember pinching myself over and over, trying to figure out if I was alive or dead, because I couldn’t reconcile the fact of being shot with the fact of being alive.

Peter, who was panicked, drove like a madman through the streets of Tamale, weaving in and out of traffic. It was the craziest driving I had ever seen. I was afraid we would get into a crash and die. It was that fear that convinced me I had to be alive. If I were already dead, why would I be so afraid of dying?

“Slow down, Peter,” I said. “I’m okay. I’ll be okay. You just take it easy.”

In the consulting room at Tamale Hospital, Peter and I told the doctor what happened. He was someone our family knew rather well, so we considered ourselves fortunate that he’d been on duty when we’d arrived. The doctor disinfected the wound and placed a temporary dressing on it while waiting for the nurses to prepare the operating theatre.

Inside the operating room, the doctor pulled the lips of the wound together. He snipped off the excess flesh, stitched up the wound, and covered it with a plaster. When he was done and I tried to get off the operating table, I couldn’t lift my right arm, no matter how hard I tried.

I told the doctor. He said he wanted to examine my arm. As he walked toward me, he noticed a hole in the back of my shirt at the shoulder. He came round to look at the front of the shirt and saw there was a hole there, too. The doctor asked me to remove my shirt. When I did, it confirmed the theory he’d formulated. He saw the holes. The one in the back was an entry wound and the one in front was an exit wound. The bullet had entered my shoulder from the back. It had gone clear through, and because I was bent over, it had grazed my cheek as it was completing its trajectory.

The doctor ordered an X-ray of my shoulder. The bullet hole was visible in the X-ray. The doctor pointed it out to me as he studied the films to determine what kind of damage I’d suffered.

“John Mahama,” the doctor said after he’d finished looking at the films, “God was on your side. You are lucky.”

The bullet that hit me went straight through muscle tissue. Had the bullet hit my scapula, it would probably have shattered the bone. My humerus would definitely have been fractured. Had the bullet entered my shoulder anywhere other than where it did, it could have passed through my bicep tendon or my rotator cuff, causing permanent damage. After the wounds healed, I regained full use of my shoulder. I still carry a mark on my face where the hot metal of the bullet made contact with my cheek. People automatically assume it’s a birthmark or a tribal mark, so nobody ever asks about it.

I rarely think or talk about it anymore. It is but one reminder of a time that, thankfully, is long gone; a time when Ghana was marred by political and economic unrest, senseless violence, and a debilitating brain drain. There are many scars, most not visible, that were acquired by those of us who stayed and weathered the country’s difficult coming-of-age process as it moved toward peace and stability through a democratic constitution and the rule of law. I carried those scars as well, through my own coming-of-age process, as I unwittingly followed my father’s footsteps into a political career that has privileged me with a journey through the halls of Parliament as a member, and minister of state, and into the Executive offices as the current vice president. 


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