Last December 31 marked the 33rd anniversary of the collapse of the Third Republic and the removal from office of Dr Hilla Limann as the executive President of the Republic. In came the Provisional National Defence Council (PNDC) led by Fl. Lt J.J. Rawlings (retd).
The putsch was received with mixed feelings since following the fall of the Second Republic on January 13, 1972, it had been the hope and prayer of many Ghanaians and friends and well-wishers of Ghana abroad that this latest attempt at constitutional rule would succeed and endure. But that was not to be.
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It was one coup the opposition was not happy about. The Popular Front Party (PFP) was somehow cooperating with the ruling People’s National Party (PNP) to entrench democracy in the country. The PFP was patient enough and had hoped that if there should be any change of government it should be through the ballot box. The opposition was looking forward to the elections of 1983 to make another attempt at capturing power.
However, the military takeover on the very last day of 1981 did not come to many as a surprise. The only surprise was probably that like the Second Republic, the Third Republic also lasted 27 months.
There were still some others who looked inside the crystal ball and predicted that it would be a miracle if the PNP administration was to go the whole hog.
They looked at the circumstances of the birth of the PNP and how it was able to snatch victory from the odds-on- favourite PFP in the 1979 elections and concluded that it would, indeed, take super human efforts for the PNP to survive the four-year term.
As we all know, PNP emerged from the ashes of the Convention People’s Party (CPP) to become a force to reckon with when the ban on party politics was lifted in early 1979. Those behind it were remnants of the CPP stalwarts who had lost power in the first ever coup on February 24, 1966. The de facto leader was Alhaji Imoru Egala, who had done everything possible to keep the CPP family going after the dust had settled following the overthrow of Osagyefo Dr Kwame Nkrumah.
Unfortunately, all the top brass in the Nkrumah government were banned from holding public office for a period, which made it impossible for somebody like Egala to lead the PNP.
However, because of the respect the rank and file had for him, so the story goes, Egala was asked to nominate somebody to lead the new party.
Alhaji Egala did not hesitate to put forward his own kinsman Dr Hilla Limann, who was a foreign service officer and was virtually unknown in political circles. This made political commentators to ask “Dr Who’, when his name was first mentioned.
Many believe that PNP would not have won the elections of July 1979 if the S.MC II, led by General F.W.K Akufo, had not been overthrown by Rawlings. SMC II had actually drawn the plan for a return to civil rule. Everything was on course for elections to be held in July when Rawlings struck on June 4.
It was a dark day in Ghana’s political history as the nation was in no mood to entertain any military intervention when constitutional rule was already in sight.
Rawlings probably read the mood of the nation and called his intervention a house -cleaning exercise that would clear the filth that had engulfed the political stable.
His assurance that he would only stay on for three months to ensure a smooth transition was what did the trick. An expectant nation that was initially suspicious gave him the green light to continue with the process of a return to constitutional rule.
Elections were held quite alright but there was no clear winner between Dr Limann’s PNP and Victor Owusu’s PFP. Many were those who believed that had the SMC II supervised used the elections, Victor Owusu would have easily won the election. Why they believed this is left to conjecture.
The elections had to go into a run-off and Limann clearly won to become Head of State. The PNP was really helped by the support it received from the United National Convention (UNC) led by Paa Willie (William Ofori Atta), a member of the UP tradition who had broken away from PFP.
The victory of the PNP marked the return of the CPP to power following the coup of February 1966. The inauguration of the Third Republic was on September 24, 1979, brought forward from the original October 1 date, so it would not to clash with a similar inauguration in Nigeria that day.
At the swearing-in ceremony at the old Parliament House, Ghanaians were left in no doubt that the PNP administration of Dr Hilla Limann was under probation. Rawlings made it clear that should Limann not do the right thing he would live to regret it.
Sword of Damocles
So from day one of the Third Republic the sword of Damocles appeared to hang on Limann. Despite his inexperience in the political game, he learnt fast and was able to assemble a team that was real stuff.
The cabinet included such versatiles as Dr I.K Chinebuah, Dr F.K Buah, Col. David Zanlerigu, Prof. George Benneh and Dr John Nabila. It also had Dr Kwaku Andoh and Kwamina Ocran.
The opposition side did not lack talents either as stalwarts such as Nana Akuako Sarpong, Kwaku Baah, Dr Jones Ofori Attah, J.A Kufour, Odoi Sykes and Kwadwo Mpianim were there to put the government on its toes.
The Parliament of the Third Republic was a lively one as there was strong co-operation between the government and opposition. Outside Parliament, party leaders from PNP, PFP and UNC were holding regular consultations to ensure democratic culture took roots.
All seemed to be going well until Alhaji Imoru Egala suddenly died on April 1, 1981, just as a delegation he was part of was about to leave for Europe and the Middle East on investment tour.
Egala had been the one who had been giving protection to Limann, especially from party hawks and also from Rawling’s utterances.
The death of Egala opened the floodgates for some PNP elders, led by Nana Okutwer Bekoe, Krobo Edusei and Kofi Batsa, to persistently interfere in government business. This situation created the platform from which Rawlings launched attacks on Limann and his government.
During this period the security services were kept on their toes as they chased Rawlings everywhere. They trailed him from door to door and were always waiting for him anytime he went to visit Tsatsu Tsikata, his close friend, at Legon, where he was lecturing. Col Annor-Odjdja, the Head of Security, was chasing Rawlings from pillar to post.
As 1981 drew to a close, there were rumours that a military intervention was in the offing. It remained a rumour until Thursday December 30, 1981 when President, Limann and his Vice-President Prof. de Graft Johnson, were scheduled to attend end-of-year parties at the Burma Camp and Police College respectively.
I was detailed as a Press Secretary to accompany the vice-president to the Police College. I got to his residence at Ridge by 6:30p.m. I realised the security officers appeared nonchalant and did not dress for a party.
As soon as my colleague, Mr Agyei Sakyi, drove in, I told him about my observation.
Together we went to meet de Graft Johnson and to tell him about the behaviour of the security detail. We were still discussing when the Greater Accra Regional Minister, Mr Torto, came in and he assured us there was no cause for alarm.
Normally when we were going on such appointments, we join one of the vehicles driven by a security driver but this time there was none. So Mr Agyei Sakyi joined me in my car and we trailed the convoy to the Police Depot.
While the party was going on, Dr Nabilla, the Minister for Presidential Affairs, came to the Police College. He told us the party at the Burma Camp was over and the President was back at the Castle.
This cheered us up and after a while we left for the Air Force Mess for another end-of-year party. On our way we saw an armoured car on what is today Obasanjo Way. A check later did not bring any negative result.
Around mid-night we left the Air Force Mess. We escorted the vice-president to his residence. I then drove home to Teshie-Nungua Estates.
Early morning on Friday December 31, 1981 I thought I was hearing the booming of artillery. Later, when I listened to the six o’clock news there was nothing strange.
I then left home to do some errands. I first went to Ghana Broadcasting Corporation (GBC) to place an announcement for a friend. But at the gate they would not allow me to enter even though they knew me as a press secretary from the Castle who could always drive in.
I did not understand what was going on. I was annoyed and drove to my friend Owusu Edusei at the KBL Depot to deliver a message. It was when I got there that he told me Rawlings was on air and had declared a coup. I was confused. But my friend asked me to stay with him in his office. We listened to the announcements on air and by 10a.m. there was no doubt Jerry was back in power.