Ghana’s J.J. Rawlings, 73, A Requiem, By Tony Iyare

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Besides its highly revered icon and immediate post-independence ruler, Osagyefo Kwame Nkrumah, perhaps no other leader has had a profound impact on Ghana’s socio-political life like Jerry John Rawlings, 73 who passed on recently. But was the one popularly known as “Junior Jesus,” who transmuted from a military to a civilian leader, a revolutionary in the mould of Nkrumah, Guinea Bissau’s Amilcar Cabral, Burkina Faso’s Thomas Sankara or some petit bourgeois soldier who was merely fired by the dream of cleaning the Aegean stable after beheading what appears a looming mass uprising in his country? Steering the country through one of its most authoritarian phases where human rights was heavily circumscribed, killings of opposition figures were widespread, his enviable legacy remains galvanizing different shades of Ghanaian society to cobble the historic 1992 Constitution which has made it possible to enthrone a stable democracy. TONY IYARE examines these and other issues in this piece on his life and times.

Let me not pretend that this requiem on Ghana’s former President, Jerry John Rawlings will lean on the melancholy and rhyme of the classicist work of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Requiem in D major. It will certainly be too arduous a task to attempt to share a stage with Mozart who according to his lovely wife, Constance spent the better part of his last days writing his requiem.

As Annilese Miskimmon notes in “Mozart’s Requiem: It’s about life, not death” in the The Guardian of London, “Mozart set this liturgical text to music for a patron who had lost his young wife to illness earlier that year. But after his death, his widow, Constance claimed that throughout Mozart’s last painful days, he believed he was writing the Requiem for his own funeral. And he was. Even though it had to be completed by his contemporaries, the circumstances of the composition, combined with Mozart’s genius, make it no ordinary piece of music.”

The death of Rawlings on November 12th, 2020 may have robbed Africa of an illustrious son who tried to change the political face of Ghana. Straddling between his vision of being a pilot, an artist and one who at some point wanted to be a priest, Rawlings, who was first ushered into power on June 4, 1979, was born Jerry Rawlings John on 22 June 1947 in Accra, Ghana, to Victoria Agbotui, an Ewe from Dzelukope, Keta, and James Ramsey John, a Chemist from Castle Douglas in Kirkcudbrightshire, Scotland, with descendants living in Newcastle and London.

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He attended the country’s Ivy league, Achimota School, where Ghana’s first President, Dr Kwame Nkrumah, and Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe also attended and the military academy at Teshie. Rawlings was married to Nana Konadu Agyeman, whom he met while at Achimota College. They had three daughters: Zanetor Rawlings, Yaa Asantewaa Rawlings, Amina Rawlings; and one son, Kimathi Rawlings.

Rawlings finished his secondary education at Achimota College in 1967 and joined the Ghana Air Force shortly afterwards. On his application, the military switched his surname John and his middle name Rawlings. In March 1968, he was posted to Takoradi, Ghana’s Western Region, to continue his studies. He graduated in January 1969, and was commissioned as a pilot officer, winning the coveted “Speed Bird Trophy” as the best cadet in flying the Su-7 ground attack supersonic jet aircraft as he was skilled in aerobatics. He later earned the rank of flight lieutenant in April 1978.

During his service with the Ghana Air Force, Rawlings perceived a deterioration in discipline and morale due to corruption in the Supreme Military Council (SMC).

As promotion brought him into contact with the privileged classes and their social values, his view of the injustices in society hardened. He was thus regarded with some unease by the SMC. After the 1979 coup, he involved himself with the student community of the University of Ghana, where he developed a more leftist ideology through reading and discussion of social and political ideas
Rawlings grew discontented with Ignatius Kutu Acheampong’s government, which had come to power through a coup in January 1972. Acheampong was accused not only of corruption, but also of maintaining Ghana’s dependency on pre-colonial powers, in a situation which led to economic decline and impoverishment.

Rawlings was part of the Free Africa Movement, an underground movement of military officers who wanted to unify Africa through a series of coups. On 15 May 1979, five weeks prior to civilian elections, Rawlings and six other soldiers staged a coup against the government of General Fred Akuffo, but failed and were arrested by the Ghanaian military.

Rawlings was publicly sentenced to death in a General Court Martial and imprisoned, although his statements on the social injustices that motivated his actions won him civilian sympathy.

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While awaiting execution, Rawlings was sprung from custody on 4 June 1979 by a group of soldiers. Claiming that the government was corrupt beyond redemption and that new leadership was required for Ghana’s development, he led the group in a coup to oust the Akuffo Government and Supreme Military Council.

Shortly afterwards, Rawlings established and became the chairman of a 15-member Armed Forces Revolutionary Council (AFRC), primarily composed of junior officers. He and the AFRC ruled for 112 days and arranged the execution by firing squad of eight military officers, including Generals Kotei, Joy Amedume, Roger Felli, and Utuka, as well as the three former Ghanaian heads of state; Akwasi Amankwaa Afrifa, Acheampong, and Akuffo.

Why Afrifa who had long retired to his village was included in what became a mindless bloodletting, was an enigma, though Rawlings later explained that they were arm twisted by a “respected general” who had an axe to grind with the former head of state.

These executions were dramatic events in the history of Ghana, which had previously suffered few instances of political violence.

Rawlings later implemented a much wider “house-cleaning exercise” involving the killings and abduction of over 300 Ghanaians. Elections were held shortly after the coup. On 24 September 1979, power was peacefully handed over by Rawlings to President Hilla Limann, whose People’s National Party (PNP) had the support of Nkrumah’s followers.

Two years later, on 31 December 1981, Rawlings ousted President Limann in a coup d’état, claiming that civilian rule was weak and the country’s economy was deteriorating. The killings of the Supreme Court justices (Cecilia Koranteng-Addow, Frederick Sarkodie, and Kwadjo Agyei Agyepong), military officers Major Sam Acquah and Major Dasana Nantogmah also occurred during the second military rule of Rawlings.

However, unlike the 1979 executions, these persons were abducted and killed in secret and it is unclear who was behind their murders, though Joachim Amartey Kwei and four others were convicted of four of these murders, which involved all three Justices and Acquah, and were executed in 1982.

Fingering the Limann regime as unable to resolve Ghana’s neocolonial economic dependency, Rawlings led a second coup against Limann and indicted the entire political class on 31 December 1981. In place of Limann’s People’s National Party, Rawlings established the Provisional National Defence Council (PNDC) military junta as the official government.
Rawlings hosted state visits of “revolutionaries” from other countries, including Dési Bouterse (Suriname), Daniel Ortega (Nicaragua), and Sam Nujoma (Namibia). More famously, he reversed Limann’s boycott of Libya then under Muamar Ghadafi, paving the way for the Black Stars to compete in the 1982 African Cup of Nations which the team won for the fourth time.

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Although the PNDC claimed to be representative of the people, it lacked experience in the creation and implementation of clear economic policies. Confused and obfuscated in its philosophical and ideological perception, Rawlings, like many of his predecessors, attributed current economic and social problems to the “trade malpractices and other anti-social activities” of a few businesspeople. Though he complained about the previous regimes reinforcing Ghana’s neo-colonial economic ties, Rawlings did little to lay the basis for an authentic national economy beyond tokenism.

In December 1982, the PNDC announced its four-year economic program of establishing a state monopoly on export-import trade with the goal of eliminating corruption surrounding import licences and shifting trade away from dependency on Western markets.

Unrealistic price controls were imposed on the market and enforced through coercive acts, especially against businesspeople.

This resolve to employ state control over the economy is best demonstrated by the destruction of the Makola No.1 Market. The PNDC later established Workers’ Defence Committees (WDCs) and People’s Defence Committees (PDCs) to mobilize the population to support radical changes to the economy but this was less than far reaching.

Price controls on the sale of food were beneficial to urban workers, but placed undue burden on 70% of the rural population whose income largely depended on the prices of agricultural products.

Rawlings’ economic policies led to an economic crisis in 1983, forcing him to undertake structural adjustment at the behest of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and later submitting himself to election held in January 1992, thereby transmuting from a military to a civilian ruler.

More significantly amongst his legacies was the atmosphere that galvanised the different social groups in Ghana to incubate a new constitution. Apart from the flurry of social rights guarmteed by the constitution, it also made it possible for peaceful change of political baton between the two leading political parties, New Patriotic Party (NPP) and the National Democratic Congress (NDC).

  • NB: Iyare, a Communications and Development Consultant is an International Relations Analyst

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