Bolaji Akinyemi once said that in certain circumstances “a tree can make a forest.” The former foreign minister upended the usual saying that “a tree does not make a forest” in a remarkable tribute to the exceptional courage and consistency of radical lawyer Gani Fawehinmi as a historical figure.
In many respects, Akinyemi’s phrase could be borrowed in appreciating the place of President Jerry Rawlings, who died last Thursday, in Ghana’s post-colonial history. Rawlings was a giant tree that actually constituted a thick forest in the Ghanaian political firmament.
For more than 40 years, Rawlings loomed large on Ghana’s political landscape with enormous impact on generations. Yet his role in history was highly moderated by the material reality of the Ghanaian society.
As the Russian Marxist, George Plekhanov, would put it, the history of Ghana in the Rawlings’ years was not made by the leader alone acting “above” the nation or by only the movement of the people from ”below.” There was indeed a dialectical link between the two currents which is important in pondering the life and times of Rawlings.
In terms of historical significance, the stature of Rawlings was only second to that of Osagyefo Kwame Nkrumah, the first president of Ghana, the man who led Ghana to its trail-blazing independence on March 6, 1957.
Rawlings was born 73 years ago in Accra by Victoria Agbotui, an Ewe lady from Keta. The Scottish father, James John, didn’t recognise Rawlings as his son. A psychologist said this could partly explain Rawlings’ antipathy to the British colonial heritage in Ghana. However, Rawlings’ full Ghanaian identity was never disputed (even amid the controversy that defined his political career) by his numerous opponents and critics. Ghana is uniquely a matrilineal African society.
As a young air force flight lieutenant and a member of an underground formation, the Free Africa Movement, Rawlings became a political factor in Ghana when he led an abortive coup against the military government of General Fred Akuffo on May 15, 1979, barely five weeks to democratic elections.
He was sentenced to death in a court martial. Before he could be executed on June 4, 1979 he staged his first successful coup and established an Armed Forces Revolutionary Council (AFRC). The AFRC ordered the execution of three former heads of state – General Akwasi Afrifa, General Ignatius Acheampong and General Akuffo – as well as eight other military officers. They were accused of corruption and bad governance. There were other reported killings and abductions. The bloody purges in the polity were carried out to a popular acclaim by the people. On September 24 of the same year, Rawlings handed power over to the elected President, Hilla Liman. About 27 months later, Liman was overthrown in another coup led by Rawlings. The government of Liman was accused of being weak and incompetent in economic management. The socio-economic situation in Ghana was a desperate one. From the time of the December 31, 1981 coup, Rawlings remained a constant factor in the Ghanaian scene till his death.
He resigned his military position and became a politician. He was elected president in 1992 and won a re-election for a five-year second term in 1996.
After the end of his presidency in 2001 till last Thursday, Rawlings remained a visible statesman in the international arena. Thanks to his widely acclaimed reputation as a non-corrupt, charismatic , pro- people and pan-Africanist stateman. He was at different times a United Nations Eminent Person promoting volunteerism and the African Union envoy to Somalia.
Making a judicious assessment of Rawlings’ role as an individual in Ghanaian history would always be a challenging enterprise. The man was a product and a producer of immense contradictions.
For instance, the 2020 Ghana is not the same as the Ghana of 1979 under the reigns of successive corrupt and incompetent military administrations.
There has been markedly relative improvement in socio-economic climate of Ghana.
However, it is equally a poignant fact of history that today’s Ghana is not coterminous in developmental terms with the Ghana of Rawlings’ initial own dreams as a member of the June 4 Movement in 1979, much less the greater dreams of Nkrumah at Ghana’s independence.
Were Rawlings to be asked a few minutes before he died if the dream of the people’s power of 40 years ago had been realised in his lifetime, being a frank and honest politician, his answer would be categorically in the negative.
Ghana is still essentially another neo-colonial African country, albeit with a huge aspiration for development and progress. By the way, it was part of the enormous contradictions of the Rawlings’ phenomenon that he was never an Nkrumahist despite the progressive perception of his politics. His political stature was, of course, by far inferior to that of Nkrumah.
So, in reading the different versions of the Rawlings story, the reader should always bear in mind the relativistic admonition of one of the most eminent British historians of the last century, Edward Hallett Carr. He said that you should first study the historian before you study his “facts. ” In his famous book little book, What is History?, E.H. Carr challenges the claims of objectivity in rendering historical accounts because the story as well as the teller of the story are products of a particular time.
So the verdict on Rawlings’ place in history depends on who is making the assessment.
For instance, a compelling account of what happened to the June 4 Movement and the Provisional National Defence Council (PNDC) has been given by Zaya Yeebo in his highly insightful 1991 book, Ghana: The Struggle for Popular Power.
Rawlings: Saviour or Demagogue. Yeebo was a key figure in the June 4 Movement and also the minister of youth and sports in the government of PNDC in 1982.
The June 4 Movement provided the ideological laboratory for the 1981 coup. As a revolutionary underground, its resonance was felt in other parts of Africa.
June 4 became a dreaded date in Africa.
As an aside, following the killings of some students by the police in Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria in 1986, a national protest, supported by labour and progressive academics, was scheduled for June 4 that year. The political connotation read into the planned protest was that of a revolution. There was a mood of emergency. The military government of President Ibrahim Babangida mobilised all forces (land, air and sea) to stop the protest. Student and labour leaders were detained and venues of meetings sealed off.
As captured by Yeebo, the revolutionary ferment generated when Rawlings came to power for the second time soon evaporated under the weight of ideological contradictions.
For instance, as at early 1982 the members of the PNDC were Rawlings, Nunoo Mensah, Reverend Damuah (a catholic priest), Warrant Officer Adjei Boadi, Joachim Amartey Kwei (a trade unionist), Sergeant Allagoa Akata-Pore (a military academy instructor), Chris Atim ( a student leader). Captain Kojo Tsikata was put on the council by Rawlings as an ex-officio member and security advisor. Apart from the PNDC, defence committees were established across the country composed of the partisans of the Rawlings revolution. There were Workers Defence Committees (WDCs) and Peoples Defence Committees (PDCs).
It was somewhat a manifest burst of a left-wing populism on the Ghanaian socio- political atmosphere.
A few years later, the power of the Rawlings regime got consolidated and, practically, all the members of PNDC parted ways with Rawlings. Only Captain Tsikata, a fellow Ewe, remained with him till the end as a political ally, some would say his strategic pillar.
The defence committees were dissolved. The population of political prisoners increased. Human rights of citizens were routinely violated. There were unresolved political murders especially those of the Supreme Court Justices – Cecelia Koranteng-Addow, Fredrick Sarkodie and Kwadjo Agyei Agyepong.
Rawlings came to power with a lot of anti-imperialist rhetoric. Soon after, the control of the Ghana’s political economy was assumed by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) with all the neo-liberal economic recipes imposed on the people. Ghana has carried on with privatisation to the extent of selling its goldmine. At a time, Ghana was the West’s poster child of liberal forms.
Rawlings never outgrew the ideological limitations of his June 4 Movement days even after he was elected president twice.
So, the question about the mixed products of the Rawlings revolution will remain: were the much advertised liberal socio-economic and political reforms worth the historical cost in terms of blood and denial of human freedom?
Certainly, Rawlings has played his part on the historical stage. However, the dream of people’s power is yet to be realised in Ghana.
For more than 40 years, Rawlings loomed large on Ghana’s political landscape with enormous impact on generations…
Certainly, he has played his part on the historical stage. However, the dream of people’s power is yet to be realised in Ghana.