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Africa needs write-minded leaders

Judging by the number of books Africa's founding nationalists wrote, one might think that to stake their claims for high office they had to put their thoughts out there before being deemed suitable for office.

There is Zambia Shall Be Free by the country's founding president Kenneth Kaunda, Facing Mount Kenya by former president Jomo Kenyatta, Return to the Source by Guinea-Bissau's Amilcar Cabral, No Easy Walk to Freedom by Nelson Mandela and African Nationalism by Zimbabwe's Ndabaningi Sithole.

The second generation of leaders – Zambia's Frederick Chiluba, Mozambique's Joaquim Chissano, Kenya's Daniel arap Moi, Egypt's Hosni Mubarak and many others – did not write much, if at all. I want to believe that it is because they were busy implementing the stellar programmes set down in the tomes of their illustrious predecessors.

That is unlikely, though, because the period in which they governed is the one Ghanaian President John Dramani Mahama describes as the "lost decades of Africa" in his recently published book My First Coup d'Etat (Bloomsbury). No, the book is not about Mahama's trashing of Ghana's constitutional order. His ascent to the country's highest office was an orderly one; he became president of the cocoa-producing and petroleum-rich state on July 24 following the death of John Atta Mills, who will be buried on August 10.

Mahama writes that the "lost decades" refer to the "dismal post-independence performance of African countries during the 1970s and 1980s  [and] into the early part of the 1990s".

Not in bad hands
A distraught Ghanaian, mourning the death of the country's president, will be cheered up when they pick up this book, published in July, a few weeks before Mahama became president. They will probably say: "It's sad that my president is no more but my country is not in bad hands at all."

My First Coup d'Etat is a soldering of strips of Mahama's personal story to his family's history, which itself is tied to Ghana's history. Mahama's father was part of a generation of Africans that was educated in the United States. Mahama Senior was a minister in founding president Kwame Nkrumah's government, which was ousted in a 1966 coup. He was arrested and spent a year in detention.

"When I look back on my life, it's clear to me that this moment marked the awakening of my consciousness," Mahama writes.

The publication of the book is a most encouraging development. It was written by Mahama while he was still deputy president. As those who have written a book will tell you, penning one requires a doggedness, selfishness, lucidity of thought and discipline that compare well with the serious business of governing a country. The four are attributes Africa now demands of its leaders as we enter into a different relationship with the West and a potentially rewarding one with China.

Africa's leaders have a veneer of the intellectual about them as they routinely have to plough through clunky prepared speeches at summits or addresses to Parliaments. But have these people ever sat down to write down their visions (not just their parties') for the countries they govern?

Put differently: Which of this breed of leaders routinely has an original thought?

Contemporary presidents
Ethiopia is leasing out its land to foreign countries, hardly the action that a thinking president sanctions. The country's prime minister, Meles Zenawi, has even banned Skype.

To my knowledge, there is a handful of contemporary presidents who take time to write. Rwanda's Paul Kagame has a big presence on Twitter. I am quite certain he writes his own tweets; they are delivered in the same halting English he uses when he is interviewed. Then there are the demented rants of Gambia's Yahya Jammeh, about whom the less is said the better.

We also have in our list of writing leaders former South African president Thabo Mbeki, whose online columns were required reading, and Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni's occasional pieces in the press.

Museveni has had other interesting ventures too. In the 1990s, he patented a plant-based paste he had used as an adolescent to clean his teeth; the paste, now in a conventional tube, is sold as "Nile" toothpaste.  

Whatever the literary merits of Mbeki's writings, at least we know what he thought about being African or about presiding over the South African nation, cleft in two: the poor on one side of the colour divide and the rich on the other.

President Jacob Zuma has his trademark statement, "we shall debate it", which is not enough.

As someone said, writing is the act of thinking clearly. It is time this generation of leaders – Mozambique's Armando Guebuza and the Democratic Republic of Congo's Joseph Kabila – tells us what it thinks by putting it down on paper. Mahama has shown that it can be done.

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Percy Zvomuya
Percy Zvomuya is a writer and critic who has written for numerous publications, including Chimurenga, the Mail & Guardian, Moto in Zimbabwe, the Sunday Times and the London Review of Books blog. He is a co-founder of Johannesburg-based writing collective The Con and, in 2014, was one of the judges for the Caine Prize for African Writing.

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