A session is about to begin. Crowds of people, presidents and youth alike, slowly file into the main hall at the 2018 Tana Forum in Bahir Dar, Ethiopia. Among the crowd, John Dramani Mahama stops to greet experts and participants who are eager to shake his hand. Humbly, he welcomes each exchange with enthusiasm and a light-hearted charm. With such humility, it would be hard to identify him as the former president of Ghana.
Mahama’s cheerful personality is embodied in his love of Afrobeat music, particularly Fela Kuti. He is also a passionate reader and established writer with a published book titled “My First Coup d’État and Other True Stories from the Lost Decades of Africa”. His book won international praise for describing a world of love, fear, faith and hope. Mahama also has keen interests in farming, environmental issues and information and communication technology.
Born into a political family, his father, Emmanuel Adama Mahama, was a Member of Parliament from the West Gonja Constituency and the first Regional Commissioner of the Northern Region during Ghana’s First Republic. His father instilled in him a passion for education, leading him to pursue a Bachelor in History in 1981 and a postgraduate degree in Communications in 1986, both from the University of Ghana, Legon. His continued interest in education drove him to complete a Post Graduate Diploma in Social Psychology from the Institute of Social Sciences in Moscow, Russia.
Historically, Mahama is not only the first Ghanaian Head of State born after Ghana’s Independence Day on 6 March 1957 but also the first President to have served at every level of political office. Mahama entered into politics in 1996 when he joined the National Democratic Congress and was elected to Parliament. From there, he climbed the political ranks, starting with his appointment as Deputy Minister in Communications in 1997, followed by Minister of Communications in 1998. He was appointed as Minority Parliamentary spokesperson for Communications in 2001 and for Foreign Affairs in 2005. He was also a member of the Pan-African Parliament and Chairman of the West Africa Caucus based in South Africa from 2004 to 2011. Mahama was elected Vice-President of Ghana in 2009 and President of Ghana in 2012.
During his presidency, Mahama advocated for the underprivileged and supported public education. In 2014, he was elected Chairperson of the African Union’s High-Level African Trade Committee (HATC) and also head of the Economic Community for West African States (ECOWAS). In 2016, during the World Economic Forum, Mahama was appointed co-chair of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) Advocates Group assisting the UN Secretary-General in the campaign to achieve the SDGs by 2030.
In 2017, Mahama presided over the ECOWAS Election Observation Mission to Liberia as head of mission. The mission aimed to ensure a peaceful and accountable electoral process. “A successful election is the primary responsibility of the citizens of a country; international observers only facilitate the process.” Mahama met with both electoral candidates and urged them to respect the electoral process. Thanks to the efforts of the mission and the National Elections Commission, candidate George Weah was elected as Liberia’s next president succeeding outgoing President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf.
At this year’s Tana Forum, Mahama delivered a Public Lecture on ‘Self-Reliance in Africa’s Peace and Security’ at Bahir Dar University where he emphasized that the key to ownership in Africa’s security sector is self-determination and that the AU cannot expect external partners to “pay the piper and play an African tune”. If Africans want their peace and security priorities met, they must control the funding, as well as policies and innovation.
At the conclusion of the Forum on Sunday, 22 April, H.E. Olusegun Obasanjo, former president of Nigeria, formally handed over his Chairpersonship of the Tana Forum Board to Mahama for a three-year renewable term.
In his acceptance speech, Mahama voiced his concerns about Africa’s security challenges, particularly the continent’s growing population and the delayed implementation of the free movement of Africans. He also expressed commitment to open and dynamic approaches by encouraging participants to “own and promote our traditional African knowledge and also incorporate the best practices from elsewhere in building our people and institutions”. He emphasized that decision-makers must also exercise prudence during this era of reform to ensure its success.
Mahama will have big shoes to fill, and tackling the transition of the Tana Forum into a Foundation will be challenging, but there is no doubt he is up to the task. His extensive leadership experience and interest in Africa’s peace and security landscape show he is more than capable of championing the Tana Forum’s reputation as a platform to pursue “continental peace and security through research and informed dialogue”.
*Malang Aleer is a Communications Assistant at the Tana Forum Secretariat, which is based at the Institute for Peace and Security Studies.