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Jerry John Rawlings: The Sneaky Elixir of Multiple Destinies

Late former President of Ghana John Jerry Rawlings
Rawlings,
In the days of troubles
In periods of war
In times of risk,
You stayed as a great man for some
A bad one for others
Papa Jay,
You killed some
For some to live,
We have searched for the scars
We have counted the wars you fought  
Countless they are.
You left us with stories untold
Of our sons and daughters sleeping in the cold,
When democracy was a taboo in the land.

Writing about a complex personality—dead or alive – often provides complexities of its own. That is why I tore into shreds the first draft of this piece about Ghana’s late Ex-President John Jerry (“Junior Jesus”) Rawlings. I discarded the second. And the third, but this one, made me so unsatisfied that the encouragement to print it came all the way from that eminent Pan-Africanist, Professor Adekeye Adebajo, who is the well-known the Director of the Institute for Pan-African Thought and Conversation, University of Johannesburg. He alluded to the power of an archive:

Let a thousand flowers bloom! The importance of these things is that it is the diversity of opinions that helps us build the jigsaw and get a better and more complex understanding of the man! So, I respectfully plead with you to enter the public square!

I have tremendous respect for Professor Adebajo. Like him, I met retired Flt.-Lt. Rawlings, not once, but multiple of times. I also met his successor, the amiable Ex-President Agyekum (“J.A.”) Kufuor, also on three occasions. I am familiar with the divisive nature of Rawlings in the politics of Ghana. Indeed, I knew those who hated him with passion, when alive, and I would taunt them by invoking his name in a positive way. I know those who also adored (and continue to do so) with intensity that I would provoke them by telling some wild jokes around Rawlings.

I will not evaluate his presidency, but mourn his death. There is a lot of time ahead of me to join in that difficult debate of assessing a man who led a country for not less than twenty years, changing titles and uniforms. Alas! I cannot mourn better than the bereaved family members or his fellow citizens, although I have in storage lots of Asante mourning uniforms, both in red and black colors, though I know that he was an Ewe from the Volta Region!

TF, Stop the Preface!

If dignity could ever cure death, with the silent prayers of many, Rawlings would have lived forever. Three days came and went, but we were forced to embrace the reality that this “Junior Jesus,” so created in the minds of many Africans, Nigerians particularly (perhaps more than Ghanaians), will not be resurrected! Rawlings held the most complicated part of politics in Ghana for those two decades, full of memories and stories, glories and, of course, not without the bad memories and the pains. His divisive personality did not come to exist ex nihilo. This is entrenched in his, perhaps, unintended accidental sojourn to Ghana’s political space with his stint as a military dictator and, later, as a democratically elected president.

While it is politically natural, the divisiveness of J.J.’s legacy lies not in him being a military and then a civilian leader; people are torn between seeing him as the hero and savior of Ghana for saving them from the clutching menace of corruption. Others condemn him for human rights abuses and extrajudicial killings.  Those condemning him remembered how his “kangaroo court” sentenced several very senior military leaders to death by firing squad; they included 1966 anti-Nkrumah coup hero, executed General Okatakyie Akwasi Amankwah (“A.A.”) Africa, the author of The Ghana Coup (1968). As an admirer once said: “These Generals were shot like hunted birds.

The journey began in 1979, when an irritated Rawlings–after a brief detention for coup plotting–and his junior officer corps allies seized power in a coup. Life was tough in Ghana, with many complaining that getting a cold bottle of beer was a luxury. Severe economic hardship in Ghana at the time compelled many of its citizens to migrate to foreign and neighboring countries, especially Nigeria, where they survived on professional as well as odd jobs.  From one military government to another, the situation only got worse. This prompted Rawlings to attempt to seize power the first time in May 1979, which initially failed. The rot in the military government triggered young soldiers, who broke into his jail cell, as they attempted for a second and ultimate chance, which succeeded. J.J. looked very thin, compared to the weighty Ex-President Rawlings, who was felled by COVID-19.

While coups have always been associated with negativity in Africa, Rawlings gave it a different meaning. In what became famous as “house-cleaning exercise,” he summarily and publicly arraigned nine senior military officers found guilty of corruption, including the last three military head of states. Indeed, many of them agreed to his justification that if left alive, they would have made their ways back into politics or keep influencing things, as typical of the Nigerian situation since 1999. To further reason with the populace that held him in high regards, Rawlings, without any iota of pressure, handed over power to a democratically elected president within 112 days (less than 4 months). By also not presenting himself for elections, unlike a certain person in Nigeria, Rawlings did not oust Fred Akuffo from office out of selfish design or personal interest, but out of patriotic nationalist concern.

Two years later, another coup occurred, in a similar fashion and out of pure contempt and disdain for the weaknesses of elected President Hilla Limann, who allegedly closed his eyes to corruption, which thrived under him to the detriment of Ghana’s economy. Invariably, Dr. Limann’s administration was hardly different from the one J.J. had booted previously. Swiftly, he did a déjà vu and assumed power himself. It was during this period that he set upon the path which inspired his critics and vilifiers. There were several cases of disappearances, killings of several citizens such as justices of the Supreme Court (Kwadjo Agyei Agyepong, Cecillia Koranteng-Addow, and Frederick Sarkodie). Besides the unexplained killings and disappearances, extrajudicial killings, human rights abuses, some of his economic policies placed financial hardships on many Ghanaians, especially the rural population.

The beginnings were very difficult, as there were also the draconian IMF and World Bank policies that he had to implement. He initiated an economic program in Ghana, tagged the Economic Recovery Program (ERP), with which he claimed to have restored international confidence in the economy. His successes in wiping out corruption and improving the economic fortunes of Ghana made him to be regarded by many, especially donor agencies, as an African role model.

In contributing to Ghana’s democratic experiment, retired Flt.-Lt. Rawlings and others established the National Democratic Congress (NDC), a competitive political party in Ghana. In 1992, he became the first president of the 4th Republic of Ghana, where he served two tenures as a democratically elected leader from 1993 to 2001. Such was his strength and hold on Ghana that he could be described as a cat with nine lives. Several plots against his government arose every year between 1983 and 1987, but maintained his hold on power while implementing policies that he thought were best for his nation. Jerry “Junior Jesus” Rawlings was skilled in providing leadership to say the people’s mind and dance to their music. He was quick to remedy many a time a policy gone bad that inflicted suffering on the people. Many professional and ethical duties were left to others. And because of that, he created 110 distinctive districts through a non-partisan district level poll. Basic decisions on Ghana’s education, infrastructure, and healthcare sectors all evolved around the districts leaders. The strategies and plans on major economic sectors that were executed under the previous regime were sustained, as new ones were formulated.

While a part of Ghana is mourning, and people keep on raining tributes on Rawlings over his move for the neoliberal structural adjustment reform, characterized as a selling out of his initial ideals, had weighty consequences for Ghana’s economy. But for others, who were clearly bitter, did base on the history and past experiences of Rawlings, kept slamming him. The violence and conflicts of his period left eternal scars, especially the one demonstrated when Acheampong’s daughter protested Rawlings’ 2006 attendance of Ghanafest in Chicago, where she was publicly accused Jerry as a murderer. Most of Rawlings’ critics claimed that he lacked the “Probity, transparency and accountability” which was his major rhetoric to define the standard he was expecting from public officeholders. Not once, not twice, they accused Rawlings of human rights abuses and the execution of three past heads of state and generals in the army. The orphaned families of Ghana’s Supreme Court judges and others who were killed by firing squad will never forget the pain and the memories.

Now with the ancestors, J. J. Rawlings ruled Ghanaians for about two decades, which made him the longest ruler of any Ghanaian government. And aside from the late Osagyefo Dr. Kwame Nkrumah, the first Prime Minister-cum-President, Ghana has had no political leader with as much impact as Rawlings. He was very involved and devoted to raising the voice of the voiceless, defending efforts to restore the economy and politics. Indeed, he dedicated himself with, arguably, his biggest legacy, by agreeing to accept democracy in Ghana, despite several African leaders’ colossal refusal to do so. Furthermore, the “Junior Jesus” played the fate game, and won, which gave him access to return to power in 1992 as a constitutionally elected president, which birthed the now “pride of Ghana”. He received various honors and recognitions for his achievements

Despite Ex-President Rawlings “military-rule” factor in the country, the masses took him as one of the best presidents in Ghana. Rawlings is no more, but the political party that he founded, the NDC, will continue to contend in national-level politics. In calling for both revolution and achieving a successful transition to united democracy, the seemingly obscure characters gave him a lead to his success stories. Not long ago, the news of Rawlings was almost everywhere when he stepped out of his car to direct traffic on Accra road. The “Papa Jay” praise was awe-inspiring. An absolute legacy for African leaders should then be that it is possible to properly and satisfactorily serve the people, leave power with dignity, and still be free and respected among the people. A long journey to his iconic title, “the man of the people.”

A great tree has fallen, and Ghana is poorer for this loss,” said Ghana’s President Nana Akufo-Addo, and he could not have said it better on the death of the great “Papa Jay”. His friends remind us that their Jerry (as the liked to refer to him) was loved for his openness, that he was exceedingly honest in his all of his dealings, and that today, Ghana is really stable Ghana because revolutionary Junior Jesus was born there. Your enemies should keep quiet for a while for you to be buried, and to allow, even if grudgingly, your friends and admirers to mourn as well as also sing:

Rawlings,
You left us with countless memories,
The two decades you served and revived Ghana,
With the struggles without captions,
Truly, you deserved more than a statue.
Gone is another African son
Gone with the pride of democracy
Gone, protecting the nation with his life,
Be blessed, Rawlings
And 20 guns’ salutes
To the years of memories.

Adieu Ex-President J.J. Rawlings, a good friend of Burkina’s assassinated President Sankara. You told me that your favorite book was Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth. Frantz is awaiting your company and the exciting debates. Your 101-year-old mother left Fanon’s wretched earth to prepare a place for you! Certainly, you were welcomed well by the ancestors, COVID or no COVID!

Junior Jesus, don’t rejoice too much with my warm mourning piece, as the evaluation that starts tomorrow morning may revive unpleasant stories.

Toyin Falola
University Distinguished Teaching Professor and Humanities Chair
The University of Texas at Austin
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