John Jerry Rawlings, Ghana’s tempestuous and controversial former rebel as well as president, died after a short illness in his home town of Accra on Thursday, 12th November. He was 73-years-old.
I got to know Rawlings fairly well as he was a member of the African Presidential Centre group of ex-heads of state established by the former US Ambassador to Tanzania, Charles R Stith. Stith and I became friends and he often invited me to meetings involving the group.
Whenever we met, wherever in the world that was, Rawlings would greet me with a bear-hug that squeezed all the air out of my lungs and then follow this up with a mock punch to my midriff before bellowing with laughter, clapping me around the shoulder and immediately launching into an impassioned discussion about whatever African issue was then top of the agenda.
I often contradicted him and he would argue as vehemently as if his life depended on it, speaking with passion and suppressed fury. Then he would grin, give me a wink, make a joke and move on to other issues.
Jerry Rawlings was nothing if not passionate. He burst on the international scene in 1979 when the handsome, pencil-slim air force pilot staged a coup against the ruling military government, which was thoroughly corrupt, oppressive and ran the country with gross mismanagement.
But the staging of the coup which owed more to emotion than carefully thought out plans, failed. Rawlings was arrested, tried and sentenced to death.
He had built up a good deal of support among the suffering masses and news of the death sentence sent a shiver of apprehension among the people.
It did not come as a great surprise that he was sprung from jail by his adoring fellow junior officers and other ranks and, riding a tank, he cornered the Head of State, General Fred Akuffo, and deposed him from power.
He formed the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council (AFRC) with himself as the head. Millions of Ghanaians poured out into streets all over the country to celebrate JJ “Junior Jesus” Rawling’s “rising from the dead”.
The military council promised people that the officials of the former regime would be made accountable for their actions. They were tried and Gen. Akuffo and others were publicly executed. This was followed by a purge of judges and other military officers who were accused of corruption and many were executed.
Although the military regime and its acolytes were generally despised, the public executions of several heads of many prominent families and clans upset and dismayed most Ghanaians – who have a loathing for violence of any kind. This was one act for which a lot of people in Ghana never forgave Rawlings.
Four months after the coup, Rawlings instituted an election and returned to the barracks as he had promised he would do.
The poll was won by a newly set up party, the People’s National Party, led by Hilla Limann. But the country was in deep economic distress, with galloping inflation, shortages of all essentials, including food and a massive foreign debt.
The call went up for JJ to step in again and he did. In 1981, he staged a coup for the second time and set up the Provisional National Defence Council (PNDC) ostensibly to rule until the conditions were right for a general election.
The PNDC adopted Marxist principles to try and stem the economic bleeding but the Communist policies were rejected by the majority and criticism of the government began to rise.
In an effort to stabilise the increasingly febrile situation, Rawlings clamped down on all opposition – something he later told me he regretted and many activists and even journalists were imprisoned and some were tortured.
To add to the country’s woes, about a million expatriate Ghanaians, many working as teachers in neighbouring countries such as Nigeria, were summarily expelled, cutting off a vital source of income for relatives back home.
Meanwhile, Rawlings had put into motion preparations for a return to civilian democratic rule and stood as a Presidential candidate in the 1992 election. He won by a landslide and was again re-elected by a large majority in 1996.
Rawlings had abandoned Marxism but pushed through some much needed reforms and, somehow, halted the downward slide of the economy. By the early 1990s, the economy had begun to turn around. He switched to market economics and pushed investment in the gold and oil sectors. He also raised Ghana’s international and pan-African profile by sending peace-keeping troops to various hot spots and often speaking out on behalf of the continent.
At the end of his term in 2001, he stood down and when his nominated successor, John Atta Mills lost the election to opposition leader John Kufuor, Rawlings pledged his full support to the new leader. He had, therefore overseen Ghana’s transition to a modern democratic state.
After leaving politics, Rawlings remained a major force as a kingmaker and often spoke out in his usually blunt but powerful rhetoric against what he considered abuse of office or corruption both in Ghana and in the rest of Africa.
He was my neighbour when I spent a short sabbatical in Accra circa 2015 and I often either visited him or ran into him in the neighbourhood. The fire and passion had been subdued a little but it would often flare up and he remained immensely popular with the people. – New African Magazine