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Opinions of Thursday, 18 November 2010

Columnist: Amenyo, Kofi

Presidential memoirs and the writing of History

Barely two years after they left office, both Tony Blair and George W. Bush, have already published their memoirs. Ten years after Rawlings left office, we are still waiting for his own account of his tenure in office. We may wait in vain. Ghanaian heads of state do not write memoirs. Only Nkrumah wrote something of a memoir but his book was somewhat premature. GHANA: THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF KWAME NKRUMAH was first published on our independence day in 1957, three years before the man became President and nine years before he was overthrown. Anything he published thereafter was an anti-climax as far as his memoirs were concerned.

That we risk waiting forever for Rawlings’ memoirs may not be a unique thing for an African head of state. Nkrumah was an exception. The man wrote tremendously both during and after office. Many African heads of state were so determined on ruling forever that they never made any provisions for a time out of office in which they can reflect over their stewardship. In our country, the two most academically minded heads of state we had after Nkrumah, ruled us for too short a time. Even so, Busia and Limann may have had a lot to tell the nation. Busia, in particular, was in public life for a long time.

Our military leaders lived short lives. Kotoka did not live long (41) to tell us his version of the events surrounding the overthrow of Nkrumah. Even if he had, could he have told it in his own words? He was just a “San Seven” leaver. Afrifa (42) was more educated but he left us no real memoirs. As for Acheampong and Akuffo, nobody expected much from them even before their lives were cut short at 47 and 42 respectively. Is it not remarkable how young our military leaders were when they were killed? Only Rawlings survived to turn himself into a civilian leader. We are still waiting for the story from his own mouth.

In other countries, presidential memoirs are important things. The tradition is old in the US. Some believe MEMOIRS OF ULYSSES S. GRANT (1885) is the best ever written in that genre even if Mark Twain may have done more than just edit it. Churchill’s monumental work THE SECOND WORLD WAR in six volumes (1948-52) was as much about his stewardship as it was an excellently written piece of world history. It contributed in no small measure in his winning the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1953. Churchill was a literary man in his own rights. A prolific writer, he wrote biographies of other great men including his father. Even Ford, who served for the two years that remained of Nixon’s term, wrote his memoirs (A TIME TO HEAL, 1979). They say Mrs Ford’s memoirs outsold his just as Nancy Reagan’s also outsold her husband’s. Kudos to the ladies. Gorbachev’s MEMOIRS (1995) details his role in guiding the Soviet Union out of socialism. Clinton’s MY LIFE (2005), is reputed to have had the biggest advance ever for a presidential memoir ($15 million!). I am one of those who think Hillary’s book (LIVING HISTORY, 2004) is a better read than Bill’s nearly 1000-page tome. Things are different in these countries. The presidents may get huge advances for their memoirs, even before they leave office. The financial reward alone is enough incentive to urge them on. Some commentators said Bill Clinton had earmarked the earnings from his book to defray the costs he had incurred in some bad financial deals as well as his legal costs from the Lewinsky affair. Together with its follow up, (GIVING: HOW EACH OF US CAN CHANGE THE WORLD, 2007) Clinton is reported to have earned a colossal 30 million by 2008. The presidents, while still in office, prepare meticulously for their memoirs keeping copious notes and having a whole staff to rely on when it comes to the writing. With the huge financial rewards, they will not argue over end of service benefits or blame the state for not housing them when their houses burn down. Tony Blair has even promised the proceeds from his book (A JOURNEY, 2010) to the Royal British Legion. It will help the soldiers who served in the foreign wars that he pushed his country into.

Of course, African leaders cannot expect financial benefits anywhere near those of their western counterparts. Africans, on the whole, do not read much and write even less. Only Mandela’s memoirs (THE LONG WALK TO FREEDOM, 1993, 2005) may have grossed millions. But the writing of a memoir can be a self satisfying thing in itself. For leaders like Rawlings, it can have the cathartic effect of assuaging some of the guilt from the heady days of his so called revolution.

The benefits of presidential memoirs are not only financial to the writers. It is a very important time for them to tell the world their story. Often, the writer is not seeking office again and has nothing to lose by telling the truth. They can be frank about their failures and give useful advice about the directions in which the ship of state they once steered should take. These memoirs are also important historical documents useful for students and researchers.

It is said that even Hitler, ever conscious of his place in history, encouraged his associates to keep diaries. He may have done so himself but destroyed them and denied posterity the chance to examine the workings of the mind of one of history’s most notorious figures.

These leaders do not even have to write the books themselves. There are many people ready and willing to help them write it. Some cynics say Margaret Thatcher, who read Chemistry at Oxford and later trained as a barrister, may not even have read parts of her own two volume memoirs (THE DOWNING STREET YEARS, 1993) the bulk of which may have been written by two of her assistants. And did George W. Bush write DECISION POINTS all on his own?

In Ghana, the one whose memoirs everyone anticipates most is, without a doubt, Rawlings. Even out of office, he remains our nation’s most controversial politician. He is the leader who took the most from us and he is the one from whom a lot more accounting is required. So many things happened under his watch for which we all want his answers. He has a lot of explaining to do. His memoirs will offer him the opportunity to be frank about his failures and gloat about his successes if he wants to. He can tell us his side of the story and answer his numerous critics. It will also give him the opportunity to say he is sorry and ask for forgiveness. He seems to still have so much to say. He should give them to us in a book. Of course, he will not tell the whole truth, but we, his readers, will know it when he is telling lies. And we, and posterity, will be his final judges.

Let us hope the Oxford educated Kufuor, who left office at the same time as Bush, will beat Rawlings to it by giving us his memoirs. Apart from his eight years as President, he has had a long time in politics and was a junior minister in the Busia regime at the young age of 30. He, too, must have a lot to tell. And Mills should be updating his notes regularly so that he will tell us his story after he leaves office.

If Rawlings and Kufuor write their memoirs, what titles, dear reader, will you suggest for these books?

Kofi Amenyo (