Published below is the full text of President John Mahama’s speech at a World Leaders Forum, organised at Columbia University, September 23, 2013.
It is a pleasure and an honour to have been invited to Columbia University to take part in the World Leaders Forum and to address this audience full of talented young people, many of whom, I am sure, are already well on their way to becoming our future world leaders.
It was my intention to speak to you today about democracy in Africa. I’d wanted to speak about how in recent times, more and more countries on the African continent have turned to democracy and the rule of law, about the pivotal role that democracy can play in a developing nation, especially where the safety and social welfare of its citizens are concerned.
Then as I was preparing to leave Ghana, I received word of the terrorist attack that took place in Nairobi, Kenya, where a group of armed men laid siege to the Westgate Premier Shopping Mall and massacred dozens of people. It was confirmed in later reports that one of those individuals killed in the attack was Ghanaian poet and statesman, Professor Kofi Awoonor.
During my journey from Ghana to the United States, my thoughts were centred on Professor Awoonor, his impactful life and the legacy of literature he has left for us and for future generations. Coincidentally, the date of Professor Awoonor’s death, September 21st, is also the date that the late Dr. Kwame Nkrumah, Ghana’s founding father was born. What links these two men, besides this fateful date, is the fact that they were both men of conscience and consciousness. They were men of tremendous vision.
Far too often, democracy in Africa is defined simply by the absence of dictatorship rather than by the presence of the vision that fuels it, and the willingness of individuals to take a stand in defence of that vision, regardless of the consequences.
In 1957 when Ghana became the first sub-Saharan nation in Africa to gain its independence, it spearheaded a revolution on the continent. Country after country followed, each one claiming its liberation from colonial rule. It was a revolution that was led by the people, by visionaries, men and women who believed that the future they saw for their country was possible. It was a goal well worth fighting for, a destination well worth marching toward, a dream for which they would sooner die than have deferred.
It was a revolution that was led by poets and professors, by singers and lawyers and day labourers; the wealthy as well as the working class, anyone who dared to give voice to that vision. They were the politicians of that era, the leaders who were destined to shape a new world. And the price many of them paid was steep.
Nelson Mandela was jailed, as was Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Wole Soyinka and Fela Anikulapo Kuti. There were many who lost days, months and years of their lives in prison. There were also many who lost their lives entirely. Christopher Okigbo was killed, as was Patrice Lumumba, Steven Biko, Sylvanus Olympio, and Eduardo Mondlane. Untold numbers of others fled into exile.
Far too often, the collective battle for independence in Africa is mistaken for the struggle for freedom. But the independence of a nation does not guarantee the freedom of its people. And this was a significant hurdle that Africa needed to overcome as its many countries moved into self-rule, this belief that the revolution was over, that with independence we had arrived at our final destination, we had met the ultimate goal, the dream had been fully manifested into reality.
Now, we know better. Decades of poverty, war, despots and brain drain have taught us better, decades during which Africa seemed to have lost its way and lost sight of that vision. Decades which were just lost.
As I said, it had been my intention to discuss democracy in Africa, but on the heels of what has been taking place in Mali, in Somalia, and in Egypt; on the heels of what has just taken place in Kenya, it’s important to first ask, “Why is it that this system is seen by some as a threat?”
I believe the answer exists in the vision.
When I speak of the vision, I speak of social justice. I speak of equality. I speak of religious and ethnic tolerance. I speak of access to education, to healthcare, to housing and sanitary conditions. I speak of respect for the dignity of the human spirit. These are the ideals that come together to form the vision. And that vision is what fuels democracy.
Far too often, when Africa’s resources are listed, the most important one is omitted. Africa’s greatest resource is its people, and we cannot afford to continue overlooking this basic truth.
As more and more countries on the continent strengthen their democracies through the rule of law—something both Ghana and Kenya recently did with the Supreme Court challenges to the results of our respective elections—the closer we get to the vision, and to the existence of that world in which so many have dared to believe.
If past truly is prologue, then it is safe to say that the lull in the revolution is over now. There has been a resurgence of African literature and music. The poets are writing of protest, and the songs being sung are of extinguishing the fire on the mountain. There is a renewed sense of hope in Africa.
A number of the fastest growing economies in the world are on the continent. Countries that had been ravaged by war, famine, genocide, apartheid, or extreme poverty are now experiencing a reversal of fortune. There is an emergence of strong democratic institutions in Africa that has ensured that African countries have not slid back into chaos and anarchy after disputes over election results.
Today, there is heightened interest in Africa and its prospects for economic transformation. The debt trap and triple-digit inflation associated with Africa of the early 1980s and 90s have disappeared and indeed many countries such as Ghana, Nigeria, South Africa, and Namibia have attained single digit inflation, with prospects for further decline in those rates.
In a recent report, the World Bank noted that economic growth in Africa for the first decade of the 21st century has averaged 4.7 percent, as against 2.5 percent for the global economy in 2012.
A few years ago Ghana, my country, was among one of the most economically challenged on the continent. In the last couple of years Ghana has posted some of the highest GDP growth rates in the world, and remains one of the world’s fifteen fastest growing economies.
At the present rate, Africa’s cumulative GDP is expected to rise from 1.5 trillion to 3 trillion by 2020. This means the potential for job creation, housing, quality education, improved healthcare, modern transportation networks, and opportunities for quality livelihoods, is limitless.
Today, Africa is home to three of the world’s overall best performing stock exchanges, and Ghana’s stock exchange received the highest rating from Databank Financial Services as the best performing stock market in terms of returns on investment.
Africa has taken advantage of the benefits of information technology to leapfrog its developmental processes. Today, subscription and usage of mobile phones in Africa has surpassed subscription in Europe and America combined, and the industry employs over 5 million people.
Mobiles phones in Africa are more than just a device for making and receiving calls. They are instruments that facilitate access to agricultural support services, micro-finance, banking services, and healthcare among others.
The world we live in today, with its laptops, smartphones and social media, is dramatically different from the world that existed in the late 1950s and 1960s. But the principles for which we fight remain the same. What also remains the same, is the hatred, greed, oppression, and the presence of individuals and groups who feel that their way is the only way.
For these individuals and groups, the prospect of peace undermines their plans for dictatorship. Empowered people are difficult to oppress. Educated people are aware of their rights. People whose only hunger is for the ability to rise to their highest potential will take a stand for justice and freedom.
But freedom is not given freely. It is not given at all. It must be won. It must be claimed, and the price of the ticket is steep.
As a leader, it is my firm people that not only do people in a nation, in a world, matter, they matter the most. The policies that our governments promote must be for the betterment of our people’s lives. The legislation that is enacted must be for their protection. The democracies that are being built, must shelter the freedom for which we are fighting. And I know that despite the setbacks, despite the senseless violence, this is a struggle that will result in victory; so we must hang on.
In a speech delivered at midnight, just minutes after Ghana became an independent nation, Dr. Kwame Nkrumah quite prophetically said, “The liberation of Ghana is meaningless unless it is linked up with the total liberation of Africa.” Nine years later, in 1966, Dr. Nkrumah’s government was overthrown in a coup d’etat. The years following that coup were turbulent ones for Ghana. The government and regime changes were numerous.
During those years of turbulence, Professor Kofi Awoonor, like so many artisans of his day, became a political activist. He would go on to serve as the country’s ambassador to Brazil and to Cuba, as an envoy to the United Nations, and as Chairman of the Council of State. But before any of that, in 1976, he served a ten-month prison sentence after being wrongfully accused and convicted of allegedly plotting a coup.
While Professor Awoonor was serving time in Ussher Fort prison, he wrote the following: “At times the vision of victory comes so blurred and dim. So much is a haze, uncertainty. But somehow in this frame flickers a little light which keeps on the search, a veritable instrument around which hope settles, quietly, stirring now, slumbering now, but hanging on, just hanging on.”
Thank you for your time.