Mon, January 24, 2022

in-focus

Jerry Rawlings, coup leader who ruled Ghana for 20 years, dies at 73


Jerry Rawlings, who as a young military officer orchestrated two coups to seize control of the government in Ghana, then led the African country for 20 years, guiding it through a period of relative stability with an idiosyncratic blend of autocratic rule and democratic reform, died Nov. 12 at a hospital in the capital city of Accra. He was 73.

The death was announced in a statement by the country's president, Nana Akufo-Addo, citing an undisclosed illness.

Rawlings was a 32-year-old Ghanaian air force officer when he first attempted to overthrow what he considered a corrupt national government in May 1979. He was jailed but soon became a hero to the country's poor people and military.

With the help of disaffected soldiers and non-commissioned officers, he escaped from jail on June 4, 1979, then proceeded to a radio station to urge his followers to seize power. By the end of the day, the country's military leader, Frederick Akuffo, had been toppled.

Rawlings, who was often known as "Flight Lt. Rawlings" for his military rank, charged Akuffo's regime with corruption and profiteering.

"The rich became richer, including the high military officers, and most of us were starving," he said at the time. "I've always wanted to do something to correct injustice."

A presidential election was already scheduled, and Rawlings vowed to step aside in favor of the new democratically elected leader. But during his 112 days in power, he oversaw the hasty creation of military tribunals that put Akuffo and two other former heads of state on trial. They were executed, along with numerous high-ranking officials.

True to his word, Rawlings and other coup leaders returned to their military positions when Ghana's new president, Hilla Limann, was sworn into office. In a speech before the country's parliament, Rawlings looked directly at Limann and issued an unmistakable warning.

"If people in power use their offices to pursue self-interest, they will be resisted and unseated," he said, before ominously adding, "We have every confidence that we shall never regret our decision to go back to the barracks."

In 1957, Ghana became Africa's first sub-Saharan country to declare independence from a colonial power, in its case Great Britain. After Ghana's first president, Kwame Nkrumah, was overthrown in a military coup in 1966, the country faced increasing poverty and unrest under a series of military and civilian leaders.

That trend continued during Limann's first two years in office, as Rawlings traveled throughout the country, giving speeches to large crowds and denouncing what he called the "rottenness" of a system that "would permit those same corrupt forces to retain their hold on Ghanaian life."

Limann maligned Rawlings as "that boy," and some of his associates mocked his mixed-race ancestry, calling him "half African."

On Dec. 31, 1981, Rawlings led a second coup, calling Limann and his supporters "a pack of criminals who bled Ghana to the bone."

This time, Rawlings had no intention of relinquishing authority. He dissolved the country's parliament, abolished the constitution and banned all political parties except his own. He aimed to establish a socialist state in Ghana, espousing admiration for Libya and its dictator, Moammar Gaddafi.

"I am prepared at this moment to face a firing squad if what I try to do for the second time in my life does not meet the approval of Ghanaians," Rawlings announced at the time.

He was, without question, an authoritarian ruler who fired judges and shut down opposition newspapers. His regime drove out many of the country's business elite, particularly those of Lebanese descent, and publicly flogged people accused of charging too much money for commercial goods. Rawlings withstood several attempted coups, with political dissenters arrested and, in some cases, sentenced to death.

Yet, by the standards of other dictators, Rawlings demonstrated a certain measure of enlightenment and restraint. Instead of imposing Soviet-style economic programs, he took the advice of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank and launched free-market reforms that led to a decade of growth.

He resisted the establishment of a cult of personality around himself and seldom used the title "president." No pictures of him were allowed in public places, and he was never implicated in scandals involving financial corruption or personal behavior.

He also pledged to restore democratic elections to Ghana and to allow opposition political parties, provided that they not have names that had been used before. In 1992, after more than 10 years of one-man rule, Rawlings ran for election and won the presidency with 58 percent of the vote.

Despite economic setbacks over the next few years, he was reelected in 1996 in an election that local and international observers agreed was free and fair. Under Ghana's new constitution, which he helped produce, Rawlings could not seek a third term as president.

When the candidate from his party lost the presidential election in 2000, the peaceful transfer of power was considered a rarity in African politics.

Rawlings was born Jerry Rawlings John on June 22, 1947, in Accra. His father was a Scottish businessman, and his mother was from Ghana's Ewe ethnic group. His parents were not married, and Rawlings was raised by his mother.

When he entered Ghana's training academy for air cadets, his last name, John, was omitted from his official form, and he became known as Jerry Rawlings, or sometimes Jerry John Rawlings. (Ghanaians often called him "J.J.," which some critics said stood for "Junior Jesus.")

Rawlings excelled as a pilot and, after his first coup in 1979, reportedly celebrated by going for a joyride in a jet fighter, flying low over Accra and the countryside.

Survivors include his wife of 43 years, Nana Konadu Agyeman, who ran unsuccessfully for Ghana's presidency in 2016; and four children.

In later years, Rawlings remained a powerful voice in Ghana's public life. Despite his rise to power on the strength of a military coup, he came to be seen as a pan-African statesman and as a primary architect of his country's emerging social and political stability. He lectured around the world and participated in peacekeeping and diplomatic efforts for the United Nations and African Union.

In a 1979 interview with The Washington Post, Rawlings cited the influence of Frantz Fanon, a Black psychiatrist and writer from Martinique whose books delineated the dehumanizing effect of colonialism and economic inequality.

"Well, that is what we are all about," Rawlings said. "It's not a Black-White thing here but the rich suppressing the poor, exploiting us, oppressing us."

Published : November 13, 2020

By : The Washington Post Matt Schudel