The recent death of the nation’s former leader, Flt-Lt (rtd) Jerry John Rawlings, brought memories back to me, as I reflected on his life and place in this nation’s history.
Luckily, my knowledge of Rawlings, his rule and what he stood for, is not limited to what I studied in my Government lessons in secondary school or political science textbooks at the university, but what I actually saw.
June 4 ‘housecleaning’
I was three months away from my 11th birthday, when a young, haggard-looking Flt-Lt Jerry John Rawlings burst on the political scene with a military takeover on June 4, 1979.
In the months leading up to that, my young mind had been caught up in the excitement and brouhaha of political parties readying themselves up for a general election that year, after seven years of military rule.
I remember clearly the three-month reign of terror in the wake of the takeover, including the execution of eight military leaders, three of whom were former heads of state.
The outcry among the youth in particular, was ‘let the blood flow!’ And flow it did, for ‘Junior Jesus’, as they called J.J Rawlings, was in an angry mood over what he saw as years of misrule by the senior military brass.
A year later, when I entered Opoku Ware School, I shared a class and a dormitory with a son of one of the executed officers, Air Vice-Marshall George Yaw Boakye. Tony and I became close friends, and his pain brought the whole June 4 saga eerily close to me.
In Prestea, where my family lived, I saw the sadistic public lashing of traders for selling various items (including matches) at ‘kalabule’ prices. Many businesses were destroyed and never recovered.
Mercifully, the ‘house cleaning’ lasted only three months, for ‘Junior Jesus’ had no intention of staying on. The election campaign resumed and on September 24, 1979, he handed over power to Dr. Hilla Limann, whose party the People’s National Party (PNP) had won the election. He returned to the barracks.
But 27 months later, he was back in the saddle, this time gruffly announcing a ‘revolution’. It came with its own, mostly chaotic landmarks, including flirting with rabid socialist rhetoric, the bush fires and attendant drought leading to a humiliating famine and power rationing, the deportation of about one million Ghanaians from Nigeria, various economic packages from Economic Recovery Programmes (ERP) to the Structural Adjustment Programme (SAP) to the Programme of Action to Mitigate the Social Costs of Adjustment (PAMSCAD), the Committees for the Defence of the Revolution (CDRs), the Public Tribunals, the Citizens Vetting Committees, the dusk-to-dawn curfews, the murder of three high court judges and a retired military officer, the Gyiwah-led attempted coup of 1983, religious persecution, curtailing of press freedoms, fuel shortages and so many others.
Towards the mid-to late 1980s, the Rawlings government began to soften its coarse edges and introduced the District Assembly concept in 1988, as its idea of decentralising governance and bringing power and decision-making closer to the people.
Demands for the return to civilian rule were mounting even in the face of what the eminent historian, Prof. Albert Adu Boahen, described as a ‘culture of silence’ during a public lecture in February 1988.
Eventually, the nation transitioned into multi-party democracy, with elections slated for November 3, 1992. Chairman Rawlings simply discarded his military fatigues for civilian garb, stood as president and won, thereby becoming the first President of the Fourth Republic.
In 2000, he left office, having attained the maximum tenure he was entitled to rule by law. But he continued to make waves from the sidelines, including his favourite ‘boom’ speeches, when he breathed fire and brimstone, initially at the New Patriotic Party (NPP) during President John Agyekum Kufuor’s administration, and latterly at the National Democratic Congress (NDC), which he founded.
Following his fallout with the NDC, he developed a rather cosy relationship with President Nana Addo Dankwa Akufo-Addo, which raised a few eyebrows, given the earlier animosity between them. But then, politics is a strange sport.
In spite of all the dastardly things that were perpetrated in his regime, JJ had built a solid base among ordinary folk and they genuinely had passion for him.
They identified with him through his earlier gutter-cleaning, fufu-pounding and sugarcane-chewing populist antics and more. He resonated with them, for they found in him a man they believed did not represent the political establishment, but rather, their needs and aspiration as common men and women. His rural electrification agenda, for instance, worked magic with many rural residents.
If I may dare to say, Rawlings copied Nkrumah by cleverly docking in with the common people (or ‘verandah boys and girls’, to use terminology from the Nkrumah era) to consolidate and then bolster his political base.
Perhaps, it is in this that the complexity ─ of his legacy lies ─ a man who meant different things to different people and was both hated and loved almost with equal passion, depending on where one stood.
To those whose family businesses were destroyed, or who lost loved ones, he was a brute who had an easy exit from this world while to those who first enjoyed electricity in his tenure, for instance, he was a Messiah. Both are legitimate sentiments, for there is no single story of the man.
Whichever way you look at it, even in death, the man who ran this country for 19 years (the longest since 1957) both as a military dictator and the foundation president of our current republic, will continue to generate passionate debate for quite some time.
I do not believe that the death of Chairman Rawlings will have any impact on the imminent election by way of what we have come to know as ‘sympathy votes’, as it has been speculated in certain quarters.
First, I do not see the NDC benefiting electorally from his death, because although he was their founder, their relationship with him at the time of his death was a strained one. Neither will the NPP benefit, because the NPP was not his natural home, his coziness with the party notwithstanding.
That leaves the third entity, the National Democratic Party (NDP), whose flag bearer is his widow, Mrs. Nana Konadu Agyeman Rawlings.
Even if she decides to remain in the race and bags some sympathy votes in the process, I do not believe it will make any impact due to the duopoly of our political system.
I think I agree with former President Kufuor’s wise view of JJ that ‘history would give him a balanced place in the annals of our nation’s history’. Rest in peace, Papa Jay.