By Paul Ejime*
Not even his harshest critics would begrudge Flt. Lt. John Jerry Rawlings – the late Ghanaian President his place in history as an influential, courageous, tough-talking, bold, impactful leader and charismatic Statesman who left deep impressions on the political landscapes of his country and, indeed, Africa.
J.J. or ‘Junior Jesus” as his admirers fondly called him, exuded great energy and revolutionary ideas. He and his colleagues were unhappy with the inequalities, corruption, and mismanagement that characterised the government of post-independent Ghana and decided to ‘remedy’ the situation in their own way.
The Pan-Africanist fervour ignited by the great Kwame Nkrumah, Ghana’s independent President, and his peers was beginning to wane with military dictatorships gaining currency in much of Africa then.
Scholars of “Contagion Theory” would better explain the plethora of attempted and successful military coups from the 1960s through the 1990s before the wave of multi-party democracy eventually caught up with the continent.
By May 1979 when Flt.Lt. Rawlings and his fellow young officer-travellers were arrested and sentenced to death for an attempted coup, Ghanaian neighbours – Togo, Cote d’Ivoire, Burkina Faso, Benin, were under one form of military dictatorship or another.
Nigeria, the regional power, was no exemption. It was undergoing one of several transitions from military to civilian rule in October 1979, which was again disrupted three years later by the December 1983 army takeover.
Indeed, military adventure into politics was like a pandemic on the continent. Uganda’s notorious dictator Field Marshal Idi Amin Dada was only ousted in April 1979 after eight brutal years in power. In Burkina Faso, a fiery Captain Thomas Sankara seized power in 1983, but his revolutionary government was cut short in a putsch led by his comrade Blaise Compaore in 1987. Sankara was killed in that coup, but like Rawlings, the effects of his reforms still reverberate to date. Guinea Conakry and Guinea Bissau had and continued to have their fair share of military interventions.
After the May 1979 failed coup, Rawlings was again in the limelight on 4 June 1979, when junior officers broke jail to set him free. But he never allowed the government of his Armed Forces Revolutionary Council (AFRC) to overstay its welcome. By September 1979, Rawlings had handed over power to the elected government of President Hilla Limann. However, not before the AFRC’s controversial anti-corruption “cleaning exercise,” that saw the public execution of some Supreme Court Judges, who handled J.J.’s trial and eight senior military officers including three former Heads of State.
When Rawlings seized power in June 1979, the headline of one British newspaper was “Half-Scottish polo player takes over in Ghana,” a reference to the fact that J.J. was born to a Scottish father and a Ghanaian mother.
Notorious for his very short fuse, J.J. quickly lost patience with Limann’s government, sacking it in another military coup in December 1981 military, thus, returning to power as head of the Provisional National Defence Council (PNDC). The Council tried to transform Ghana into a Marxist State and so turned to the Soviet Union for support. But the Communist system was abandoned two years later, with J.J. reluctantly embracing the Western free-market system followed by the devaluation of Cedi – the local currency.
J.J. gained popularity with the free-market reforms, turning economic austerity into a stable economy in the early 1990s, which coincided with the advent of pluralistic democracy in Africa. Moving with the global tide, he won the first democratic presidential election in 1992 and boosted Ghana’s international profile by contributing troops to the regional ECOWAS Ceasefire Monitoring Group (ECOMOG) and the U.N. peacekeeping operations in Liberia, Sierra Leone, Lebanon, and Iraq, among others.
Still riding on the crest of a robust domestic economy and positive international image, J.J. won re-election in 1996 as Ghana’s longest-serving leader before handing over power peacefully in 2001. He remained active in retirement with occasional public forays, such as turning up to direct road traffic to ease gridlocks. In 2002, a year after leaving office, Rawlings called for “positive defiance” against his successor President John Kufuor’s government, apparently out of frustration of the government’s performance. But he did nothing untoward to undermine that administration and, if anything, contributed to the consolidation of democracy in Ghana.
In subsequent years, Rawlings went ahead to campaign for debt forgiveness for African countries and, in 2010, served as African Union’s envoy to crisis-torn Somalia.
Until his death on 12 November 2020, at the age of 73, J.J. was never a fan of Western capitalism, saying in one of his famous quotes: “You can Christianise me, but you can never westernise me.”
In September, Rawlings’ video celebrating the 101st birthday anniversary of his mother Victoria Agbotui went viral. Unfortunately, the centenarian passed on a few weeks later, and Rawlings himself took ill shortly after his mother’s burial. The next the World heard was that the once-ebullient air force officer had succumbed to the cold hands of death.
Rawlings will be remembered for speaking his mind on issues, especially on governance in Africa.
Recently, when the debate was raging on how France and some of its Francophone allies tried to hijack the ECO currency from ECOWAS, a video emerged with images of J.J. chastising Paris on the issue. Even when it was reported that Rawlings had disowned the video and its content, many recipients were not persuaded otherwise. According to them, the views expressed in the video were consistent with those of the vocal Ghanaian leader on such matters.
J.J. often brought both undiluted seriousness and wise-cracks to public speaking punctuated by anecdotes. There was a story about his unscheduled visit to the venue of a military exercise outside Accra, the Ghanaian capital. The exercise was on “Camouflage against the Enemy.” But during the visit, Rawlings conveniently ignored the commanders and instead decided to interact with junior officers.
When he asked a fidgety Corporal Kofi the name of the military exercise, Kofi replied that it was “how to camouflage the enemy.” Jokingly but sternly, Rawlings directed the Commander to bring the troops back to base since it was apparent they did not understand what the exercise was about! But that was not the end of the story! Kofi’s mates made fun of him for lacking the courage to explain the exercise to the Commander-in-Chief. To which the Corporal retorted that: “Talking to the President is not easy.”
In another recent video, Rawlings as guest speaker at a University function snatched the hand-held microphone from a gentleman and handed it back to a young lady, adding cheekily: ‘I prefer the young lady,’ to a raucous applause by the audience.
Tributes have continued to pour in from world leaders eulogising the late Ghanaian Flt.Lt., who, unlike some African dictators, had the opportunity to promote himself to the highest rank in the Air Force while in power but resisted the temptation to do so. Rawlings led by example and from the front, heading one of the shortest military regimes that organised a democratic election. He also stepped down after two terms resisting the sit-tight or third-term craze on the continent.
In J.J.’s honour, Ghana’s President Nana Akufuo-Addo, who is seeking re-election on 7 December, has suspended his campaigns and announced a-seven-day national mourning and a State burial for the former leader.
But like every human or any coin, there are at least two sides to Rawlings’ legacy. After all, one man’s terrorist, they say, is another’s freedom fighter!
Doubtless, the orphaned families of the Judges and senior military officers executed by firing squad under Rawlings’ watch would have uncomplimentary words for the late Flt-Lt. who on occasions said regretted his actions, but never apologised. Indeed, critics often accused his government of human rights violations and being intolerant of dissent.
Capital punishment is going into extinction as the World continues to lose appetite for the taking of human life as a deterrent against crime. As mortals, we are frail imperfect creatures. Yet, among us also are those who have the opportunity to apologise or atone for misdeeds but fail to grab the opportunities when presented with such. Unfortunately, for many, there is no luxury of a second chance.
The ultimate and inescapable truth is that while some might escape accounting for their deeds or misdeeds here on Earth, Divine judgement is inevitable! The consolation, however, is that, unlike humans, God is an impartial Judge. Therefore, our task on Earth is simple – to spread love and do good to others at all times, and expect a favourable judgement.
May God guide us aright and grant J.J.’s soul a peaceful repose. Amen!
*Paul Ejime, an author and former war Correspondent, is an International Affairs Expert and Consultant to International Organisations