Ehirim Files Interview: The Sylvester Mensah Story


Sylvester A. Mensah Image: Ghana Today/Ehirim Files Images

Sylvester A. Mensah holds an MBA in Finance from the University of Leicester in the United Kingdom and a BSc. in Administration from the University of Ghana. He also serves on a number of public and private boards in Ghana. He served a full term as a Member of Parliament for the Dadekotopon Constituency in the Greater Accra Region of Ghana from 1997 to 2001. He is Chief Executive of Ghana's National Health Insurance Scheme and is credited with far-reaching organizational restructuring, innovations, and initiatives in reforming Ghana's NHIS. Under his stewardship, the NHIS emerged on the international healthcare landscape as a model of financial risk protection and in November 2010, Ghana's scheme received a United Nations Award for Excellence and Leadership in finacial risk protection.

In this interview, Mensah talks about his new book, what had inspired it, his diplomat father and role in the Kwame Nkrumah administration, his four years as a parliamentarian in Ghana, prospects of Ghana's Fourth Republic and lots more.

 The Ambrose Ehirim Files: Tell us a little bit about yourself.

Sylvester Mensah:  You may want to take a thorough journey into my book "In the Shadows of Politics" and the piece 'about the author' on page 153 and at the back of the book. You may also glean more   about me and my formative years and family life in various chapters of the book, especially chapters 3, 4 and 5.  This l believe provides better insights than any further attempt l make to talk about myself now

 TAEF: You have written a book. What inspired That?

Sylvester Mensah: As someone who loves words and the inherent power of words to communicate ideas, I have always cherished the hope of writing a book to share my inner most thoughts with the world. But as my schedule got busier it seemed for years that I might never get round to   doing that, until the President of the Republic of Ghana, His Excellency President John Dramani Mahama, published his first book, ["My First Coup d'etat"],  in 2012. Then I thought, if the President, who is exponentially busier than I was, could make time to write a book then I could do the same. That was when I began writing my book and had it published within six    months of starting.

TAEF: When did you begin to realize "In the Shadows of Politics: Reflections from My Mirror" must be Written?

Sylvester Mensah: The idea of writing a book had always engaged my thoughts based on reflections and the desire to share my experiences. The motivation was however triggered after reading the book of a gentleman l consider the busiest in Ghana, H. E. John Dramani Mahama. It felt natural to begin scripting my experiences.

TAEF: The book is very political. What compelled you to join politics when you could have done something Different?

Sylvester Mensah:  I decided that my maiden book should be one that told my story as truthfully as possible. And since my life after leaving school has centered on politics in the main, I had to tell it as it is. As to the choice of politics as a career, I did    not choose it really; it chose me. You will find the circumstances leading up to   that clearly explained in the opening chapters of my book.

TAEF: Your father was a diplomat and all your siblings happened to have been born in different countries. As a child being shuttled from country to country, what would you say you learned growing up from different environments?

 Sylvester Mensah: Not a lot beyond listening to my parents, doing as I was told and playing with my brothers and the few friends that came my way through school. I was quite little for much of that period. The bulk of what I remembered therefore was what I have narrated in my book.

TAEF : You talked about your father's involvement in the rescue of Patrice Lumumba from his captors which did fail. What had happened after, and what other stories did you learn on your own which your father did not tell you about?

Sylvester Mensah: That whole saga about the arrest and incarceration of Lumumba was a plot by his political enemies to eliminate him as a force for shaping the destiny of the fledgling Democratic Republic of Congo. Sadly, they carried this through. After the Ghanaian attempt to rescue him [which was spear-headed by my dad] fell through, a group of local activists loyal to Lumumba also attempted to free him by smuggling him to another city, Stanleyville. Unfortunately, that was not successful either. Fearing that their nefarious plot could fail, Lumumba's enemies moved him into the Katanga province in the Congo in January 1961 and shot him with two of his ministers. News of his death came out three weeks after the event. According to the conclusion of a committee set up to enquire into his death, the shooting was conducted under the supervision of President Moise Tsombe, representatives of his government from the Katanga province and Belgian military officers.

My dad said very little about what he did. In that regard he was very ‘old school’, believing that information must be given only to the deserving. As I explain in the first chapter of my book, I later discovered how closely he worked for Dr. Kwame Nkrumah, the first president of the Republic of Ghana, on his emancipation project for Africa. “My dad made himself available to [Dr. Kwame Nkrumah] unreservedly, and what seems clear is that the great man invited my dad’s thoughts and opinions across a range of subjects during the time they spent together. Their encounters, which took different forms, occurred at different times and often in different locations. Sometimes they met in the President’s office, or somewhere else chosen by the President. Sometimes it was over a meal or a drink, and other times in a car driving back to the President’s home. Occasionally, it was a walk in a secluded part of the President’s office gardens; at other times, a stroll at the beach or a favourite retreat. Their exchanges were focused and purposeful, oftentimes resulting in my dad running errands, which took him to some far-flung parts of the country or the continent for a specially targeted outcome.”

TAEF: Growing up you had always wanted to share the same resemblance of your accomplished kinsfolk--Dr. Ebenezer Ako-Adjei, Peter Ala Adjetey, etc.--do you see yourself in that category now?

Sylvester Mensah: No, not really; but it is very much work in progress.

TAEF: You said "My four years in parliament were some of the most eventful and fruitful years of my life." How, and what made you say that?

Sylvester Mensah: I saw my time in Parliament as an opportunity to learn how government really works. I was young and filled with deep respect for the institution of Parliament, so I immersed myself in the role of Member of Parliament – learning Parliamentary ways and means, participating fully in all debates, took up opportunities to serve on oversight committees and eagerly sought to utilize whatever I learnt for the benefit of my constituents.

TAEF: Is Ghana's Fourth Republic working as had been projected?

Sylvester Mensah: By and large the answer to this question is, yes! Democracy is challenging and expensive. This is true for all human societies that attempt to adopt it as their method of government. To the extent that Ghanaians are determined to make the most of the opportunity to administer our affairs by means of plural representation and principled dialogue, despite the challenges it brings to social cohesion and our economy, we can say that Ghana’s 4th republic is working as well as could be expected.

TAEF: What are the things not done, and in what areas are these things required to effect change?

Sylvester Mensah: If by this you mean ‘how our constitutional governance is organised’ as a whole, then my answer would be that our democratic governance systems have in-built mechanisms that allow the body politic to chart its own direction based on its needs and expectations.

But if you mean ‘how programmes of government’ are carried out for national development, then I would say that there is quite a gulf between where we are now and where we would wish to be. The strategic tension between what is and what ought to be is positive and progressive given that there is commitment to drive to a desired destination.

In all such circumstances, the inherent challenges of inadequate funding, priority setting, programme efficiency, transparency, accountability, programme leadership among others come into sharp focus.

TAEF: Do you think right now Ghana's democracy should be considered thorough in its applications?

Sylvester Mensah: I believe the most appropriate answer to this question is to ask to be shown a perfect democracy. In my view a good democracy is one that is responsive to the aspirations of the people in whom sovereignty resides. Over the years, Ghana’s democracy has demonstrated this, and to this end, I can confidently say that it has demonstrated a capacity to adapt to changing needs. 

TAEF: Ghanaians I have talked to said that President John Dramani Mahama isn't their best deal. What's your take on that?

Sylvester Mensah: As a journalist of your caliber and experience, I am sure you are well    aware that political assessments can often be subjective and tend to be colored by people’s political preferences, perceptions and prejudices. Therefore, to be on safer grounds, one would want to turn to published data by reputable sources on governance when making judgments about performance in office. I am sure you have your own trusted sources you consult for information. I recommend highly that you turn to your sources on this subject in order to come to a more reliable and a more rounded view of the performance of John Dramani Mahama. 

You may discover, for example, that among all Ghana’s presidents since 1957 when we gained independence, he was confronted with one of the most difficult set of circumstances, including a lengthy legal challenge to his legitimacy by an opposition party after a fairly conducted general election. This undoubtedly had implications for political stability and investor confidence in the Ghanaian economy. This coupled with low and falling commodity prices in an economy with high growth potential and development expectation may generate varying perceptions depending on one’s political persuasion and expectations. I dare say he has done a sterling  job of grappling with those difficult circumstances within just over a year of taking charge and is now on the verge of turning things around. If doing that is not a serious deal for government in the twenty first century, I’d like to know what is!

TAEF: When you came back from London and had wanted to get back on your feet by way of appropriate consultation with the influential, what was your view and what went through your mind when Kofi Awoonor said you "had come rather too late"?

Sylvester Mensah: As I observe in chapter 13 of my book, every party in a democratic dispensation has ‘internal stakeholders’ or ‘interest groups’ whose view must be reckoned with in the affairs of the party. It is the height of madness to desire to make headway in a political party in a democracy and choose to overlook this cardinal point. This explains my reason for consulting those many regarded as the shakers and movers of my party when I came back from England.

Professor Kofi Awoonor’s view was a disappointment at the time. But I took it as a candid opinion expressed by respectable man who always spoke his mind. Therefore, I chose to regard his opinion as an unspoken hint [from someone I respected] to double my effort if I really wanted to win. However, the eventual winner of the elections [Mr. Johnson  Asiedu-Nketia] has proved to be a real asset to the party as General Secretary, and this I acknowledge with humility. In hindsight, perhaps l should have given him my support rather than contesting him.

TAEF: On Africa, what would you say had been behind its progress and in your opinion, what measures should be taken?

Sylvester Mensah: For a start, far-sighted leaders of the pioneering generation, such as Dr. Kwame Nkrumah, Modibo Keita, Sekou Toure, Robert Mugabe, to name a few, were successful in their efforts to wrestle independence from colonial masters and demonstrated that “the black man is capable of managing his own affairs.” This was a hugely significant step, for it opened the floodgates for many things we take for granted today to flow through. Social institutions such as schools, hospitals, and a host of other developmental agencies began to emerge.

The transformation process is on-going. Africa has always had the potential for growth. The huge populations on the continent constitute a viable internal market that could drive economic activity. The continent is richly endowed with natural resources. It was not for nothing that European nations in the past scrambled for Africa and named regions after resources – Gold Coast, Ivory Coast, Pepper Coast etc. The continent is rich in minerals such as gold, diamond, uranium, and has huge oil reserves.

Conflicts have been a bane to the development of the continent. But with a more stable environment, investment and other economic activities get a boost. Moreover, slowly and steadily, democratic governance is taking hold on the African continent, and as democratic institutions become stronger, the prospects for growth are enhanced.

Furthermore, globalization also means that the continent is interconnected with the rest of the global economy and fairer terms of trade and investment among other factors, can only result in Africa realizing its potential and taking its rightful place in the world

TAEF: On Ghana's troubled past and revolution, was Jerry Rawlings justified for killing three of Ghana's past leaders on grounds of effecting change?

Sylvester Mensah: Jerry Rawlings was very much a product of his time, which you describe as ‘Ghana’s troubled past and revolution.’ Harsh as the events were, it is important to recognize that we all contributed to the turmoil of those times in our own ways! We need to learn the lessons of those days as we make strides into our new democratic future, and vow never again to allow things to degenerate to those levels. We must also ensure that the lessons of those times are thoroughly taught to future generations. That is the only way to protect our fledgling progress and avoid mistakes of the past.

TAEF: How about Kofi Busia, what justified his removal by the military juntas?

Sylvester Mensah: This is substantially no different from the previous question, in that they both involve mistakes of the past. Only as we learn the lessons of such mistakes can we avoid repeating   them as we head confidently into our future.

TAEF: And, Osagefo Dr. Kwame Nkrumah. What explains his removal by the Emmanuel Kotoka-led military juntas?

Sylvester Mensah:  Dr. Kwame Nkrumah’s removal from office and subsequent humiliation by his political opponents was engineered and facilitated by western powers who felt threatened by the brilliance of his vision and what they saw as its inherent threat to their colonial/neo-colonial interests. This is well documented in the literature. But again, we have lessons to learn from that episode, at all levels, and pass them on to the younger generations. That’s the deeper benefit of his far-reaching personal sacrifice for the sake of his people.

TAEF : What do you have for the upcoming generation?

Sylvester Mensah: To help them to realize that the future is bright; that this is truly an exciting time to be growing up in Ghana. It is my pride and joy to help them understand that we have a rich history which is replete with precious lessons for nation building; that the pedigree of our country and its institutions among the nations of Africa and the world at large is respectable and therefore worthy of building upon; that if they utilize the opportunities which come their way, thoroughly learn the lessons of the past and intelligently harness the resources available to them, there will be no limits to their achievements and their ability  to transform this beautiful country we call home for the benefit of all.

TAEF : Your next move.

Sylvester Mensah: To continue serving my country to the best of my ability and to continue reading, writing and sharing my thoughts and experiences, especially to the upcoming generation.
Thank you and accept my appreciation for reading my book – ‘In The Shadows of politics – Reflections from my Mirror’