Sunday, June 15, 2014

BOOK REVIEW: A Common Man's Political Character

By Ambrose Ehirim

In The Shadows of Politics:
Reflections From My Mirror
By Sylvester A. Mensah
Author House, London; 163 pp., $14.95 Paperback

Leopoldville, Congo: His arms roped behind him, ousted Congo Premier Patrice Lumumba (center) is roughly handled by soldiers here. Lumumba, attempting to flee to his stronghold at Stanleyville, was captured by troops of Congolese strongman Col. Joseph Mobutu and returned to Leopoldville. on Dec. 6th. A Soviet effort to have Lumumba's treatment debated at the United Nations was defeated. Date: December 6, 1960. Image: Bettmann Collection

Sylvester A. Mensah's memoir "In The Shadows of Politics: Reflections From My Mirror" is full of stories dating back to the administration of Kwame Nkrumah in which he talks about his father's involvement from when Nkrumah took the mantle of leadership to its collapse, when Nkrumah was chased out of power from what was said to be threat he had posed to the international community, and, to the Western Hemisphere, in particular.

One can read Mensah's memoir in a take of a coffee break or sit under a tree, that is if you have the time for the leisure at the beach to read the fascinating story which tells the tale of a humble beginning that eventually sours, then picks up through stories of learning the traditional way, and growing up, emulating the foundations of leadership to propelling the ideal to the forefront--taking the lead to effect changes and what would pay off by way of hard work--living a dream--from around which there was no substitute. I read his book in a take and had to reread it again for this review.

Mensah begins each chapter and sub-chapters with quotations from men he had admired and followed--Benjamin Disraeli, Bruno Bettelheim, Sir William Hamilton, Chad Varah, Georges Pompidou, William Shakespeare, Napoleon Hill, Jim Yackel, Vinve Lombardi, Colin Powell, Abraham Marshlow, Mahatma Gandhi, George Orwell, the Biblical Corinthians 29, and other sayings of wisdom--that had inspired and guided him through his philosophical nurturing and political upbringing.

Starting his story with his father, Lovelace Mensah, who had registered as a party member affiliated to the Convention Peoples Party, the CPP, becoming Nkrumah's errand boy, sharing time and private moments with Nkrumah, a man he had admired and committed himself.

In Congo, Ghana had opened its foreign mission and Mensah, Sylvester's father, had among his other colleagues been assigned to the new diplomatic office during which time Sylvester's father met Patrice Lumumba and established a cordial relationship which was held strong until Lumumba became the prime minister of the Congo republic upon Congo's independence. Lumumba, according to Mensah,  "Africanized the Congo military" and promoted Mobutu Sese Seko to head the military, which in a few months upon that appointment, coupled by an "ensuing" anarchy, Sese Seko would seize power, sack Lumumba and place him under house arrest. When Lumumba was arrested, Nkrumah, disturbed, and of losing a very close ally sought ways and means to rescue the prime minister, overthrown by the military junta.

Nkrumah with the plan to rescue Lumumba handed Mensah a handwritten letter to be delivered to Lumumba in his guarded residence. The letter had detailed out some techniques of maneuver to escape, but a suspicious military guardsmen who kept vigilant where Lumumba had been restricted to move freely at a time Lumumba was reading the letter from Nkrumah. With the soldiers advancing where Lumumba was kept, Mensah quickly "snatched" the letter from his friend, Lumumba, and chewed and swallowed it.

Mensah was beaten by the soldiers and arrested, tortured and interrogated  for clues that may lead to where the letters came from and its content. Mensah's arrest was published in Ghana's major newspapers wired from Reuters: "An official of the government of the Congo Coordination Committee has confirmed that a diplomat, Mr. Lovelace Mensah, has been arrested in Leopoldville. He said United Nations authorities were arranging to secure his release."

Despite all the efforts and the strategies by Nkrumah on Lumumba's rescue, the plan failed and Lumumba was not spared by his captives. Lumumba was executed and thus begun the Congo civil unrest and prolonged civil war.

In what had been why Mensah (Sylvester's father) was detained as published in the Congolese dailies on allegations of Ghana's plans to invade the Congo, though denied by the Ghanaian government, the anti-Lumumba Province of Katanga insisted, escalating the Congo-Ghana squabbles from Nkrumah's personal letter to Lumumba and an official letter to the United Nations Secretary-General, Dag Hammarskjold, asking for United Nations intervention in the Congo and release of Mensah.

Sylvester Mensah was born in Conakry, Guinea, on December 28, 1963 to Christiana Essie Atwel Mensah and Lovelace Mensah during his father's shuttle as a Ghanaian diplomat around the world. Mensah obtained his B.Sc. degree in Administration from the University of Ghana and his MBA in Finance from the University of Leicester in the United Kingdom. With his first degree, he dabbled into Ghanaian politics swaggling his way into parliament serving the La Dadekotopon Constituency at the age of 33 and, being the youngest ever in the country to attain such position.

At La, Mensah found a place he could play local politics on which he was deeply involved, and meeting with prominent Ghanaian politicians and at the same time, sitting as MP, he became an "article 71" official bestowed by the "President of the Republic" and whose assignments included among others the Consolidated Fund of Ghana.

Initiating the Dadekotopon Education Trust Fund, the DRTF, with beginning sum of three thousand five hundred Ghanaian Cedis, its purpose was to help students who needed assistance financially for "educated-related activities that enhance learning."

Among the social programs and other welfare-related projects, a poverty alleviation fund, Roads and Drainage maintenance Projects, the Eastside Game Projects, the Cantonment Social Center Projects, the Dadekotopon Stadium Project, the La Market Rehabilitation Project, and the La Lorry Park Project were created and implemented under the leadership of Mensah as MP for the La Dadekotopon Constituency; and, also, on the poverty alleviation fund project aimed at "proving financial assistance to improve the livelihood of distressed members of the constituency.

In a Parliamentary order of democratic fabrics, Mensah's National Delegates Congress, the NDC, was defeated by the opposition party, the New Patriotic Party, the NPP, in an overwhelming landslide which left him redundant, broke and a hopeless future as he leaves the Ghanaian Parliament.

Mensah did not save enough cash during his MP years, had no house built he could call his own given that his MP years was open with every opportunity to amass wealth, enough to sustain his out of parliament life and at the same time able to have enough cash for other related investments common with politicians when in power. Mensah had decided to be honest, hard-working in performing his duties giving accounts of his stewardship transparently. That honesty cost him a whole lot which did open up options and other opportunities." as he moved on.

That misfortune of losing his seat in parliament paved way for his attempt to leave for England in order to advance his education since a bachelor's degree was not enough to fair well in Ghana in elevation of his status and the ability to meet up with the nation's current demands in the quest of thoroughness in the system and upholding democracy and the rule of law.

Leaving Ghana with only ninety British pound sterling in his pocket, he enrolled for the masters degree program at the University of Leicester, majoring in Finance. Soon, his wife joined him in the UK and both collectively worked to help each other. Mensah would teach here and there, in different colleges, had some money saved and moved back to Ghana to continue his political career while his family stayed for the meantime, as he gets things situated in Ghana. Securing a job at the Intercontinental Bank as Head of Service, Public Service Banking he eyed other opening opportunities.

Mensah's second coming as a political heavyweight was not an easy call. He had consulted with many Ghanaian personalities and government officials which included President John Dramani Mahama, then MP for the Bole Bomboi constituency and the late President John Evans Atta-Mills, then the party's flag-bearer for advise and guidelines in his quest to bounce back. He had also expected a better reception from poet Kofi Awoonor while exploring the possibilities of reentering politics and running for a position. He was not impressed with his encounter after meeting Awoonor who had told him that he came way too late. In my interview with Mensah, and asking him about his experiences during his second political attempt and especially regarding what he had expected from Awoonor, Mensah said:

'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."

Ghana's attempt at reform and good governance went through a long haul of trials upon lowering of the Union Jack by the colonial administrators and the overthrow of Nkrumah's government by the Emmanuel kotoka-led military juntas. I was a living experience of Nkrumah-led administration alongside my childhood friends--Teddy Onyeji, John Bull and others, including President Mahama, at the Kanda Estate playgrounds and amusement parks which was a stonethrow away from the Flagstaff House, the state house where Nkrumah presided on the affairs of state.

As a tradition introduced into the African continent, and like Ghana, military coups and in-between short-lived civilian rule became the norm. From the Kotoka-led regime to Joseph Ankrah, after kotoka was murdered in a cold blood by counter coupers and, the sudden assumption of A.A. Afrifa charge d' affairs before a general election that saw the election of Kofi Busia, Ghana fell to its bottom low following years of uncertainties and bad leadership.

As it would happen, a young Airforce officer named John Jerry Rawlings would intercept what had destroyed Ghana's economy from years of bad governance. In my continued interview with Mensah, I had sought his thoughts on what had happened and why it was allowed to happen,  and what had gone wrong with a system of government engineered by the Nkrumah cabinet supposedly to have been emulated by other African states as a model to profound leadership and the deterioration upon fall of the First Republic. And if Rawlings should be justified in carrying out a revolution where three former Heads-of-State were murdered in his revolution, Mensah again:

"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."

In Mensah's own words, Rawlings came in because of the time and the necessities for a sense of purpose and belonging' which in its aftermath, a terrible cost paid in the Ghanaian revolution.

Mensah came from a home that's large, of polygamous making by a diplomat father. He did not find life as easy as it should have been considering the fact that his father was a Nkrumah ally and should be assumed all would be very well why he grew up. In a large family of his and rearing likely to be rowdy, grand in mischief and competition, at five, he had already seen much around him, and upon return from Rome, Italy, where his father had served as an attache under the Nkrumah administration, and from what would follow as "economic hardship," though survived the culture shock, adapted and assimilated into the Ghanaian culture of his ancestral home, all that came after was a fairy tale and a life of its future not really certain.

Going through school itself was a journey of confessional grades at a point. A house full of many siblings denied him privileges to obtain quality education, and, despite all the stumbling block from family hiccups, he gave it his best and eventually, overcame what had clouded his ability for profound scholarship. But as in determination and commitment to succeed, encountering the usual difficulties with the prospects of a better future that seemed to have vanished as a result of his father's expulsion as a diplomat and party affiliated political engagements, Mensah never gave up his dreams even though responsible for taking care of the family from his meager income which oftentimes could hinder every opportunity for growth, he secured a scholarship at the Cottbus Political College in Germany to study "Political Economy." There, he completed his brief course and returned home to his native Ghana.

Upon return to Ghana, he was admitted for the public administration program at the University of Ghana, Legon, where he obtained his diploma. Not enough in his academic pursuits and a bright future and while in the Ghanaian parliament representing the La Dadekotopon Constituency, he seized the moment and enrolled in a degree program earning a BS. in Human Resource Management.

Elsewhere, playing significant role in local politics at his constituency, and as Chief Executive Officer, the CEO of the National Health Insurance Scheme, the NHIS, and despite the challenges it posed, he worked tirelessly in "improving data integrity, employing the Consolidated Claims Processing Center", the CDC, to "full capacity," and the implementation to "enforce the directives of the Ministry of Health," by way of medications and prescription levels, and a thorough management of all related accounts to effect the changes demanded and why the Insurance scheme he headed had to be created on which he gave it his best shot, reviving what seemed to have been impossible. With all the difficult tasks, Mensah took a measure, according to him, that saw an "increased inflow of revenue" under his care and relocation of the department to a bigger complex in order to locate other necessary needs to enhance the schemes' programs.

As it would turn out from his efforts and the diligence to yield results positively in the insurance scheme he had held as CEO for four years, Mensah, noted with dignity that "the pillars of progress erected in the four years of my tenure, with the help of the able management team assisting me, ranges from a NHIS law  (Act 852 of 2012), a single payer system, and a medium term development plan these achievements are firmly anchored in a redefined vision and mission, both designed to stand the test of time, and both consistent with our objectives."

In the books' forward, Professor kwamena Akwoi of Ghana Institute of Management and Public Administration, describes Mensah with vigor and the ambition that shares similar traits of "99 Days In Agege," the book about an optimistic individual during the 1980s Nigeria political crossroads and President Barack Obama's ideal of a "New dawn" in "Yes We Can."

Besides my interview with Mensah and questions regarding previous military regimes in his book and declining responses in detail, to fault the juntas as part of what had destroyed Ghana in its entirety after the fall of Nkrumah's government and upon Rawlings revolution which paved way for the Third and Fourth Republic, one presumes he had left the subject to be written and questions answered by others who probably have better insight in what had transpired during that era. 

Mensah's 163 page book is a fun read from a "kid" who grew up in a political environment, turned out a politician, justifying his every move and interest for a political career, even though there were other options to pursue something else. His dream and passion worked out to his timing, which also enhanced his book writing career, beginning with this biography.

For one with big ideas from the concept of the book and, now highly intelligent, thoughtful and principled, the sky is the limit and a shot at the presidency shouldn't come as a surprise. He would have earned it.
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