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Life of Jerry Rawlings

By Patrick Smith

American History

Ghana has invented a special kind of political polarization – as much personal as ideological – seen in the response to the demise of former leader Jerry John Rawlings on 12 November. Second only to founding President Kw a m e N k r u m a h , Flight Lieutenant Jerry Rawlings shaped the country’s trajectory. And as with Nkrumah, his legacy is highly contested. A w i n g o f t h e country’s establishment went into mourning and prepared for state obsequies. Another wing rehearsed the bloody regime change of four decades ago, of generals marched to a firing squad and of three judges kidnapped and murdered at the dead of night. At times, the divide between leftists and conservatives can be as sharp as in Europe and the United States; at others, there is incessant two-way traffic between the two camps, with each side stealing the other’s ideas. Many of Ghana’s conservatives will never forgive Rawlings and his cohort for their attempt to set up a people’s republic in the early 1980s, blaming his strident leadership for the lives lost and economic descent of that era. At first, workers and students celebrated the reforming zeal of Rawlings, the ace air force pilot with an obsession for technical details. ‘His distaste for both political camps’ L at e r o n , m a ny radical activists and trades unionists, gaoled and detained for antigovernment activities, b e c a m e d i e - h a r d opponents of Rawlings a s h e s t a r t e d h i s rightward march. An exponent of noparty politics, Rawlings had tried to bypass the mainstream political divide. He rejected

the socialist ideology of founding President Kwame Nkrumah but was deeply suspicious of what he saw as the elitist political tradition of Danquah-Busia parties.

 Partly, it was his distaste for both political camps and his attempt to break the mold of mainstream politics that explains his dominant role in Ghana’s political life in the 1980s and 1990s.

 His skepticism towards establishment politicians and the generals resonated across the society. At heart, Rawlings’s style was a populism that connected with the urban youth across Ghana, the same constituency that had been fired up by the anti-colonial struggle and recruited into Nkrumah’s veranda boys movement.

 T h e y w e r e t h e dispossessed; central to political mobilization and immortalized in Ayi Kwei Armah’s brilliant “The Beautiful Ones Are Not Yet Born”. ‘Radical new alliance’ As Ghana shuddered

after Rawlings’ first coup d’etat in June 1979, socialists, radical nationalists and most of all, adherents of Nkrumah, joined this radical new alliance. Activists at the heart of events recall there was more madness than method.

 First, a failed revolt on 15 May, 1979 against the regime of Lieutenant General Fred Akuffo landed Flight Lieutenant Rawlings in jail facing a death sentence.

 Sprung from prison on 4 June, by fellow junior officers, Rawlings joined the coup plotters in days of fierce fighting against stalwarts of the Akuffo regime.

 O n c e i n p o w e r, Rawlings took up the siren call for ‘house cleaning’ and the ‘war on corruption’.

 The immediate targets were Lt. Gen Akuffo, his predecessor Gen Ignatius Acheampong and five other senior officers – all of whom met their end at the army’s firing range at Teshie on the Atlantic Ocean.

To some surprise, Rawlings and the Armed Forces Ruling Council then presided over elections and handed over in September 1979 to Hilla Limann who won the Presidency on the ticket of the Nkrumahist People’s National Party.

 It proved to be a short interregnum of civilian government. Endemic corruption persisted, with added political dysfunction. Rawlings and his allies plotted their return, seizing power on new years’ eve on 1981.

 T h i s t i m e , t h ey promised, there would be no premature exit. It was the second coming of JJ or Junior Jesus, as his more fervent supporters had it.

‘The second coming of Junior Jesus’

 In Accra, Tema, Takoradi and Kumasi, activists set up people’s and workers defense committees, designed to build community solidarity and negotiate b e t t e r w o r k i n g conditions. Some spun

out of control when petty authoritarians tried to inflict their will on others, as in the public flogging of market women for “kalabule”, profiteering and hoarding their goods. Fo r t h o s e w h o looked to Cuba, an early supporter of Ghana’s revolution, the network of people’s c o m m i t t e e s w e r e foundation stones for a new political structure, promising grassroots accountability, equality a n d i n t e r n a t i o n a l solidarity. A staunch journalistic hangover from the colonial era was renamed The People’s Daily Graphic.

Like many leftist regimes, the Rawlingsled Provisional National D e f e n s e C o u n c i l had inherited a near bankrupt state. Many a dvo c a t e d r a d i c a l redistributionist policies. Lands and factories were seized. B e s p e c t a c l e d i n t e l l e c t u a l s t o o k

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