President Rawlings at 70: The good, the bad and the ugly

For those who are familiar with the story of the life of Flt. Lt. Jerry John Rawlings, from his military junta days as the Chairman of the AFRC and the PNDC, through the era of democratization which he led as a civilian president, into the years of statesmanship as a former president and a political head, it remains both a puzzle and a mystery as to how his life and brand of politics has defied all odds to remain alive and relevant after all these years and still going strong at the celebration of his 70th anniversary.

The life history of Former President Jerry John Rawlings with respect to modern Ghana can be compared to the beauty of the African Kente fabric which has always been a fascinating thing that instantly attracts the attention of many because of the simplicity of the technology and the materials that have carefully been blended together to produce such a master piece with its adorable patterns and candor.

However, the value of the different strands of thread woven together to form that master piece would almost be meaningless when they are separated individually. It is only when they are separated that you would notice that the good, the bad and the ugly have been woven together to serve a beautiful purpose.

That is how one can describe the life of Flt. Lt. Jerry John Rawlings, the First President of the Fourth Republican constitution and the Founder of the National Democratic Congress (NDC) party which has been in and out of power since the promulgation of the 1992 constitution. Since he burst on the political scene at age 33 with his botched coup attempt that resulted in the eventual overthrow of the military occupiers at the time, his life history could best be categorized into the good, the bad and the ugly as alluded to in the Kente scenario.

Chairman Rawlings as he was known during his junta days, has made a lot of friends, foes and those who observe him from afar with the attitude of indifference.

Even though there is no common ground about the history of how Ghana was ushered into its fourth civilian rule in the fourth republic after intermittent interventions by the military, the facts about that era and the circumstances that led to it must be told and retold until we arrive at a middle ground where there can only be minor differences from varied point of views.

The Rawlings factor in Ghana’s history is one fascinating episode that can hardly escape the attention of anyone seeking to investigate the past, the present or even the future of this modern Ghana which has earned for itself the enviable status as an oasis of peace and role model of democracy in the sub-region.

The story of his entry and exit of power, the tenets that underpinned the military revolution that he led and the so-called “soul cleansing” that he oversaw, and whether or not all that was a success or failure must be told to the next generation for the sake of posterity. Even more so when this enigmatic character has just crossed the bar into his septuagenarian life.

Just like wine, as they say: the older it gets; the better it becomes. So is the life and history of JJ Rawlings and his intervention in the state of affairs of the nation since May 1979. And so with the passage of time and with the maturity of age and the events and circumstances that necessitated the military junta he led, it is hoped that the emotions and personal scores that obscured the truth from emerging would hopefully give way for the facts to emerge unadulterated.

Junior Jesus or Junior Judas?

He emerged on the scene with his quest to enforce probity, accountability and equal justice for all in the society for what he detected as corrupt practices and the looting of the state coffers by the ruling class of his day. The jury is still out there as to whether he succeeded or failed.

For some, he is a hero and for others, he is a villain. The initials of his name “JJ” had a double accolade of ‘Junior Jesus’ or ‘Junior Judas’ depending on one’s point of view. But both his admirers and detractors have not denied some very conspicuous attributes of his personality that have catapulted him to instant fame and recognition. It even seem that destiny conspired with nature to create a path for him where there seems to be none. His charisma, his love for nature and the zeal to help the vulnerable in society are the noticeable attributes of his character that seem to have continued to maintain his relevance after all these years both in country and abroad.

His name draws the attention of almost every Ghanaian either for good or bad reasons whenever it is mentioned and it also rings a bell in international circles whenever the opportunity grants itself.

The name Jerry John Rawlings has become a household name in Ghana’s politics and interwoven into Ghana’s fabric of politics with many colorful strands of thread firmly put together just like the popular African kente of Ghanaian decent.

For some in Ghana when the name Rawlings is mentioned, it brings to them a nostalgic sense of hope and joy. For others, it is a source of anger and sadness mixed with rage and fury. Like the popular African Kente, there are many threads of different colors; some very pleasant and others not too pleasant, but all come together as a master piece that is appreciated by the beholder.

One of the critics of Jerry John Rawlings, Kwabena Arthur Kennedy, in a recent article to commemorate the 70th anniversary of Rawlings wrote, “Let me state at the onset that despite my biases, life should always be celebrated. Therefore, I join the Rawlings family and his friends in wishing him well. I wish though that those officers executed in the prime of their lives and the judges murdered after that fateful ride in that Fiat Campanola in 1982 had lived to be old men and died of natural causes, surrounded by their loved ones too. This also goes for the estimated 2 thousand or so who lost their lives directly or indirectly due to June 4th and 31st December.”

He further added, “We must be careful that our careless praise of those who did evil with the best of intentions does not inspire a new generation of coup makers…George Santayana said, ‘Those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it”. Let’s not forget history and let us be careful what we celebrate. We might get more of it.”

The personality behind the name, Flight Lieutenant Jerry John Rawlings, has hit the perfect Biblical age of Three Scores and a Ten, which is 70 years old in 2017. A feat which many would have desired to achieve while they are still as strong as Mr. Rawlings is even at his new age.

The early years of Rawlings

Jerry John Rawlings was born in Accra, Gold Coast, a decade to the independence of Ghana from the clutches of the colonial master on 22 June 1947, to Victoria Agbotui (born 9 September 1919 in Dzelukope near Keta in what is now the Volta Region of Ghana), and James Ramsey John, from the United Kingdom, born in Castle Douglas, Scotland, in 1907. His father worked as a chemist in the then Gold Coast, and his mother was the head of the catering department at the State House in Accra. He attended Achimota School, where he obtained his general certificate O Levels in 1966.

With his passion for flying, he enlisted as a Flight Cadet of the Ghana Air Force in August 1967 and was subsequently selected for Officer Cadet Training at the Ghana Military Academy and Training School in Teshie, Accra. As part of his on-going training, he was posted to the Takoradi Air Force Base in the Western Region in 1968. In January 1969, he passed out as a commissioned Fighter Pilot Officer of the Ghana Air Force and was awarded the ‘Speed Bird Trophy’ for his outstanding airmanship.

In January 1977, he married his childhood sweetheart from the Achimota School, Nana Konadu Agyeman, and on June 1st 1978, J.J. Rawlings and Nana Konadu had their first child who he named Zanetor – meaning ‘Let the night stop’ in his mother tongue ewe. This name symbolized, to J.J. Rawlings, a call to end the current economic and social malaise that Ghana was undergoing. They now have three daughters including: Zanetor Rawlings who is now the MP for Klottey Korle in the Greater Accra Region, Yaa Asantewaa Rawlings, Amina Rawlings; and one son, Kimathi Rawlings.

In March, 1968, he was posted to Takoradi in the Western Region to continue his studies. He graduated in January 1969, and was commissioned a Pilot Officer, winning the coveted “Speed Bird Trophy” as the best cadet in flying the Su-7 ground attack supersonic jet aircraft. He earned the rank of Flight Lieutenant (Flt. Lt.) in April 1978. During his service with the Ghanaian Air Force, Rawlings perceived a deterioration of discipline and morale, reflecting the corruption of the Supreme Military Council (SMC) at that time.

The botched coup attempt and the overthrow of the SMC gov’t

An accomplished and award-winning Ghana Air Force Fighter Pilot, Flt. Lt. J.J. Rawlings emerged onto Ghana’s political scene at the age of 31, when on May 15 1979 he led a group of junior ranks in an unsuccessful insurrection aimed at stopping the political and economic decadence that had engulfed Ghana for over a decade. Specifically, his motive was to persuade senior officers to listen to the need to ‘cleanse’ the Armed Forces of the corruption engendered by years of rule by the military before the elections scheduled for June 1979.

In May 1979, Rawlings, together with six other soldiers were arrested, by the Ghanaian Military for a mutiny labelled as a coup attempt (because the military were in power at the time) on the government of General Fred Akuffo, and Rawlings appeared before a General Court Martial, charged with leading a squad of soldiers on 15 May 1979.
With the publicity given the trial, there was strong public reaction in support of Rawlings when his defense statement was presented in court, outlining the country’s economic deterioration and social injustice that had prompted him to act. This, and with his pronouncements that the court set his men free and hold him solely responsible for the mutiny, ignited a mood of both the Armed Forces and the general public, subsequently unleashing a spontaneous uprising of the Armed Forces on the 4th of June 1979 when a number of junior military personnel released him from custody, fearing his execution.

Upon his release, he was thrust into the chairmanship of the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council (AFRC), which had ousted the Supreme Military Council. He met a chaotic situation characterized by anger and cries from the Armed Forces, students and workers to “let the blood flow.” Immediately following the overthrow of the Gen. Akuffo government, Rawlings and his men embarked on what was termed “house-cleaning”. They immediately tried and executed General Akuffo, Gen. I. K.Acheampong, and Gen. Afrifa, all former heads of state, who had participated in earlier treasonable coups against former Presidents like Nkrumah. Air vice Marshal Yaw Boakye, General Utuka, Amedume, Felli and Kotei were also executed for their roles in undermining the image of the military through corrupt acts.

The killings of the Supreme Court justices (Cecilia Koranteng Addo, Frederick Sarkodie, and Kwadjo Agyei Agyepong), military officers Major Sam Acquah and Major Dasana Nantogmah were also witnessed during that era.
The executions were brought under control and to the surprise of many, to ensure that the scheduled elections took place. He channeled the rage of the people into a ‘housecleaning exercise’ and in less than four months, handed over to the newly elected government. On 24 September 1979, the AFRC military allowed the governing of the People’s National Party (PNP) under Hilla Limann after he had won the elections that was scheduled in that year.

The second military intervention by Rawlings

On the 31st December 1981, Rawlings led the popular 31st December Revolution, which ousted the Limann Administration and the Third Republic as Economic and social conditions in Ghana continued to deteriorate. In a radio broadcast he called for “nothing less than a revolution” in which every citizen should shoulder his or her share of the responsibility for social justice and meaningful development. The Provisional National Defense Council (PNDC) was established, which included both military and civilian members. The government as a whole including PNDC Secretaries (Ministers) was predominantly civilian.

In its early years in Office, the Provisional National Defense Council was initially preoccupied by various crises: the starvation caused by the drought of 1983; negative growth rates; bushfires which devastated forest areas, farms and plantations in the southern part of Ghana; the consequent fall in the water level of the Volta Lake which necessitated rationing of electric power; public outcry to its tough austere budget of 1983; action by the Government of Nigeria at the time to cut off oil supplies and to summarily evict over one million Ghanaians living and working in Nigeria. The PNDC, however, weathered these storms and persevered with its Economic Recovery Programme (ERP), a comprehensive programme of financial and structural reforms. The international donor community – the World Bank and the IMF – also embarked on structural adjustment programmes in conjunction with the economic recovery programme and by 1985, the economy had recovered and grew at a positive average of 5 percent over the next fourteen years.

In Jerry John Rawlings’ first official speech subsequent to the removal of Hilla Limann, he announced the creation of the National Commission on Democracy (NCD), which began decentralization and dissemination. Opposition to the PNDC, agitated for a return to multi-party democracy. The National Commission on Democracy was put into high gear to begin the process to return to multi-party elections.

Rawlings established PARDIC – Public Administration Reconstruction and Decentralization Implementation Committee – which was tasked to firstly review proposals on local governance put forward by previous governments, and then to develop a local government system. In 1987, a local government system was presented, and in 1988, the Local Government Law was passed which created more District Authorities as well as more electoral areas within each district.

On the return to constitutional rule

As the District Assemblies began to function, a consultative assembly was set up in 1990 to prepare the country for the return to full constitutional government. In his January 1 1991 broadcast to the Nation, Chairman of the PNDC, J.J. Rawlings reflected: “Our eyes are now firmly set on the final phase of our journey as a provisional government and on the road towards establishing for Ghana, a new constitutional order. But I believe we have learned over the years, that a constitution as a mere legal document is of no real value, however fine the language and however lofty the sentiments unless it is a true reflection and embodiment of the perceptions and noble aspirations of ordinary Ghanaians. When a constitution embodies principles which are a consensus of the firmly held views and practical experiences of people from Axim to Bawku, from Hamile to Aflao, then no force can breach such a constitution because it resides not in a piece of paper, but written with the blood of the people.”

While other political parties were formed to contest the presidential and parliamentary elections, the National Democratic Congress (NDC) was also founded with Rawlings as the founder, leader and presidential candidate of the party. In Cape Coast, the NDC began its campaign and at this historic occasion, Rawlings proclaimed at the rally, “This country is not going back, she is only moving forward!”

When presidential elections were held in 1992, Rawlings stood as the candidate for the National Democratic Congress (NDC), the successor party to the PNDC. Election returns on 3 November 1992 revealed that Rawlings had won 58.3 percent of the vote, for a landslide victory.

Almost immediately, the opposition parties claimed that the presidential election was not fair, and that widespread abuses had occurred. The leaders encouraged their followers to boycott subsequent Ghana parliamentary and presidential elections, with the result that NDC officials won 189 of 200 seats in the parliament. Answering questions about polling place irregularities, he said he will initiate a new voter registration program.

Rawlings and the NDC again held onto the Ghana parliament in 1992 and 1996.

Per his constitutional mandate, Rawlings’ term of office ended in 2001; he retired in 2001, Rawlings was succeeded by John Agyekum Kufuor, his main rival and opponent in 1996.

Kufuor succeeded in defeating Rawlings’s vice-president John Atta Mills in 2000. In 2004, Mills conceded to Kufuor and Kufuor ran for another four years.

Rawlings as a statesman

Jerry John Rawlings remains politically active both locally and internationally. Soon after he left office in 2001, President Rawlings volunteered his time and commitment as an Eminent Person for the United Nations International Year of Volunteers 2001. He was engaged in fighting to contain HIV/AIDS, particularly in Africa, delivering passionate speeches on HIV/AIDS- prevention to large audiences. As a participant at the 3rd United Nations Conference on the Least Developed Countries in Brussels, Belgium, Rawlings highlighted the importance of volunteer action in HIV/AIDS response.

In October 2010, the African Union appointed Jerry John Rawlings as the AU High Representative on Somalia to “mobilize the continent and the rest of the international community to fully assume its responsibilities and contribute more actively to the quest for peace, security and reconciliation in Somalia.”

In 2008, he was instrumental in returning the National Democratic Congress (NDC) to power after eight years in opposition. Energetic and still hugely popular across Ghana, Rawlings campaigned throughout the country to garner significant support for Professor John Atta Mills to win the Presidential election.

But in the 2012 elections, he fell out with the leadership of the party then and therefore refused to campaign for the party. Though the party won the elections it did not do as well as it should have done. Again in the 2016 elections, he refused to campaign for the party and it led to the eventual painful defeat of the NDC led by John Dramani Mahama.
This is somehow a testament to the fact that Rawlings at age 70, is still relevant in politics and a force to reckon with in the affairs of the party which was founded on his principles of probity, accountability and integrity.

Source: Clement Akoloh || Businessweek Africa

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