Remembering Jerry Rawlings

By Rotimi Fasan

The seven-day period of national mourning declared by President Nana Akufo-Addo to mourn the passage of Ghana’s former president, Jerry John Rawlings, ends today. During this mourning period the Black Star flag of Ghana flew at half-mast. While receiving members of the Rawlings family who had visited the Jubilee House office of the president of Ghana to formally inform him of the death of Rawlings, President Akufo-Addo had promised the deceased president would be given a state funeral. His status as both a former president of Ghana and in the national history of Ghana demanded it.

His funeral, the President went on to say, was the responsibility of the Ghanaian government. President Nana Akufo-Addo was frank enough to admit that his relationship with President Rawlings was fraught, but both came to see the value in each other. Two of President Rawlings’ daughters were on the delegation that visited President Akufo-Addo.

One of them is standing as does her mother, the former First Lady, Nana Konadu Agyeman, in parliamentary election slated for later this year. Indeed, major players in the election had to suspend campaign activities out of respect for the former president on hearing of his passage. Rawlings, born on June 22, 1947, was 73 when he died of yet undisclosed ailments on Thursday, November 12, 2020. His father, James Ramsey John, was Scottish while his mother, an Ewe from Dzelukope, Keta, in Ghana, was Victoria Agbotui. She died in September.

A mercurial figure, Rawlings was a celebrated fighter pilot in Ghana’s Airforce. He rose to the rank of Flight Lieutenant and emerged as the head of the junta that ousted the military government of General Fred Akufo on June 4, 1979. He was on death row in prison over a failed coup in May 1978, when he was freed by his comrades who he eventually led to stage a coup against the regime of General Akufo.

There is no doubt that Jerry Rawlings was a very remarkable figure who was driven by a pan-Africanist vision that envisioned an economically stable and independent Africa. A charismatic, fire-spitting radical in the mould of Fidel Castro and Che Guevara, he was certainly the last of the cohort of radical military leaders including Muammar Ghaddafi and Thomas Sankara that emerged from Africa in the latter part of the twentieth century. His June 4 ouster of the military regime of Fred Akufo and the subsequent execution of Ghana’s former military leaders, all generals, was the template on which he executed his anti-corruption, pro-people policies. It was the basis of his moves against the elected government of Hilla Limann who he handed over power to in September 1979 only to remove him from power in a coup on December 31, 1981.

This was exactly two years from the day of the coup that ousted Shehu Shagari from power in Nigeria. I have vivid recollection of a black and white image of Rawlings’ smiling face in a military uniform on the cover of a little book titled, I believe, The 4th June Revolution. The title of this book which brings to mind Ghaddafi’s Green Book (both of which I first read in my eldest brother’s library) gestures at the idealism that propelled the action of the young men that spearheaded the series of coups and reforms, beginning from 1979 through the economically turbulent 1980s, that would ultimately transform Ghana from a military state to one of Africa’s most stable democracies from 1993 onwards under Jerry Rawlings.

They had a grand vision of their action and the expected outcome. But it was not all smooth sailing. Ghana under Rawlings went through hell and came back. But he was committed to bringing back the good times after the harsh economic climate of those years when basic necessities of life (food and groceries among others) were, due to galloping inflation, unavailable and Ghanaians fanned across their borders in a bid to survive. During this period many Ghanaians migrated to Nigeria where they dominated the artisanal sector as tailors, shoemakers and bread sellers, etc.

Others better educated found jobs as teachers in primary and secondary school. Faced with her own economic crisis in 1983, the Nigerian government expelled Ghanaians from the country in the famous Ghana-must-go episode, a truly sordid period in Africa’s postcolonial crisis. But Rawlings stood the course and pulled Ghana back from the brink of disintegration. In the wake of his passage many Ghanaians have recalled with nostalgia some bywords of the Jerry Rawlings’ years that functioned as mantras of his reformist agenda: ‘accountability’, ‘transparency’, ‘probity,’ etc.

Rawlings was not exactly an ideologue with an organised body of ideas that drove his vision. While he spoke much, addressed huge crowds and galvanised youth groups and workers, he had very little by way of writing. Not even his memoir which he was about writing before his death. Ghana, Africa is the worst for it. He was, it would appear, motivated more by the idea that every Ghanaian, African or human being, deserves to enjoy those basic necessities that make life liveable in dignity.

Consumed by this vision, he went all out to sell his ideas to his people and was prepared to confront anyone that stood in his way. This brought him into head-on collision with many who questioned his democratic credentials. But Rawlings it was who inaugurated Ghana’s Fourth Republic and after serving two terms in office ensured the smooth transition of power to a party in opposition. This explains why he is considered by many as the architect of modern Ghana, perhaps only superseded in fame and accomplishment by Ghana’s first democratically elected ruler and one of Africa’s best, the Osagyefo himself, Kwame Nkrumah.

Remarkably no Ghanaian has accused Rawlings of corruption even two full decades after he left the presidency. His commitment has been to the Ghanaian people and Ghana where he lived all his life. His time in power obviously influenced some of Nigeria’s military leaders, especially Ibrahim Babangida, who appeared to have taken a lot out of Rawlings’ political playbook.

Aside from the populism, witness the naming game: Armed Forces Ruling Council, AFRC, a clear echo of Rawlings’ Armed Forces Revolutionary Council, AFRC. Also, Babangida’s theatrics in 1986 of setting up a political bureau, just as Rawlings did, ostensibly to help chart and determine Nigerians’ democratic preferences in their programmed return to civilian rule, or even more tellingly the botched attempt to transition from a military fatigue-wearing general to a civilian ruler, a move Jerry Rawlings achieved with relative aplomb and respect.

The Rawlings’ years may now be in abeyance but not the role and impact of the man Jerry John Rawlings, a Ghanaian original that gave of himself in all its flawed humanity to his nation. Rest well, the one nicknamed Junior Jesus.

  • First published in Vanguard

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