The death of Jerry John Rawlings, aged 73 on the 12th day of November, 2020, a former military head of state, ex-President and one of Ghana’s most recognised statesmen, reverberated worldwide. Rawlings was the positive face of Ghana and indeed, a top African political influencer despite his military antecedents. Africa has lost a rare breed, a man who at one time epitomised the crisis of political stability, but later, the agonising voice of a continent that the rest of the world is leaving behind. Typically, he died as he had lived: as a patriot and exemplar of national self-reliance. Unlike most African leaders, past and present, there was no thought of flying him abroad for treatment. “A great tree has fallen, and Ghana is poorer for this loss,” his long-time political opponent, Nana Akufo-Addo, said.
He is right. The story of JJ Rawlings, as he was better known, is the story of a modern democratic Ghana. Grabbing power at a time when coups were fashionable, he nevertheless set a good example in free elections and peaceful transition. During his first outing, he led the country with brutal crackdowns. But his second coming as an elected president helped Ghana transform and blossom into a stable democracy.
Rawlings, a son of a Scottish farmer and a Ghanaian mother, he entered the Ghana Air Force, graduating in 1969. Then a Ghana Air Force Flt Lieutenant, he intruded dramatically into the limelight in May 1979 when he and other junior military officers were tried and sentenced to death for coup plotting. On June 4, 1979, Rawlings finally overthrew the Fred Akufo-led military junta in one of the bloodiest coups ever witnessed in Africa. Spectacularly, he publicly executed eight senior military officers, among them, three former heads of state. About 300 other officials were purged, some disappearing in a “house-cleaning exercise” against corruption. His impassioned oratory against the ruling military’s misrule, corruption and economic ruin at his public trial had fired up a traumatised population pauperised by visionless successive military regimes. Junior officers sprang him from jail and made him head of state, just months before a scheduled transfer of power to civilian rule. Remarkably, he spent just 112 days in office, handing over to an elected president.
But two years later, he toppled the Hilla Limann-led civilian government, citing its inability to resolve the country’s economic collapse. Again, his return at the head of a populist socialist-inclined junta in the early years featured the abduction and killing of some Supreme Court justices, military officers and civilians. His two decades-long rule altogether, half as military dictator, the last half as democratically elected president, radically changed Ghana’s political and economic fortunes. Today, Ghana has become a leading light in liberal democracy and economic growth in Africa.
What is, therefore, Rawlings’s legacy? This is mixed, but undeniably, to friend and foe alike, in charisma and influence, he towered just below Ghana’s founding father, Kwame
Nkrumah. His most remarkable legacy is that he brought government to ordinary people. In 1981, he established People’s Defence Committees through which ordinary Ghanaians held the government accountable. He interacted freely with farmers, market women, students and others that a typical ‘African Big Man’ considers as the wretched of the earth. He led by example and substantially demystified political office, the noble values he engendered, have become part of Ghanaian society today.
Rawlings’ rise was facilitated by the economic collapse of Ghana in the 1970s and early 1980s and abrasive corruption among the ruling elite. Its mainstays, cocoa and gold industries, were in ruins, hijacked by profiteers and corrupt military and civilian officials. Impoverished at home, Ghanaians fanned out all over Africa, thousands to then flourishing Nigeria to eke out a living in menial jobs and prostitution.
Leading by example, joining work gangs and mobilising through local community and youth groups, his socialist agenda however could not revive the economy. “I am not an expert in economics and I am not an expert in law, but I am an expert in working on an empty stomach while wondering when and where the next meal will come from,” he said in empathy with the downtrodden.
To his credit, ever a realist, he abandoned the statist template of monopolies and unrealistic price controls and embraced IMF-brokered market-led reforms; the structural adjustment programme featuring devaluing the cedi, scrapping subsidies, privatisation and de-nationalisation of the cocoa and coffee sectors transformed the structure of the economy and laid the foundation for its liberalised operating environment. But it came at the price of initial hardship, political instability that provoked more repression and five attempted coups, according to the BBC. Ghana thereafter logged one of the highest growth rates among African economies.
While FDI to Nigeria dropped by 48.5 per cent to $3.3 billion in 2018, Ghana’s had risen to $3.25 billion by 2017 and overtook Nigeria’s $2.2 billion with $2.9 billion in 2019, said UNCTAD. His leadership by example where he popularised Ghanaian fabrics like Kente, Woodin and Akosombo worldwide helped to revitalise the textile sector that according to the World Bank, fetched $285 million in export revenues in 2011. Uniquely, the poverty-reducing
and job creating advantages of rural development were recognised. Apart from allocating 40 per cent of spending to education and health, his National Development Policy Framework was anchored on rural infrastructure provision and through this, said the Word Bank, food production rose 148 per cent in 1995-97, the world’s third highest after China and Jordan.
Africa, with its ‘Big Men’ and sit-tight leaders arranging endless term elongation for themselves, needs to learn from Rawlings. Having transformed to a civilian, he stood for and won elections in 1992 and 1996. In 2000, he surprised an appreciative world when he declined to seek term extension and organised an election in which his preferred candidate and NDC party lost to the opposition, a rarity in the continent. The likes of Paul Kagame (Rwanda), Yoweri Museveni (Uganda), Alpha Conde (Senegal) and Alhassan Ouattara (Ivory Coast), need to imbibe this progressive lesson as crucial to political stability and economic progress.
Nigeria also needs to emulate his fierce spirit of self-reliance and national self-esteem. Like his ideological soul mate, the late Thomas Sankara of Burkina Faso, Rawlings had an Afro-centric foreign policy that emphasised non-alignment and rapid development of the continent’s economy. Nigeria’s policymakers need to rediscover the country’s once activist foreign policy.
But perhaps the greatest legacies to be learnt from the Rawlings phenomenon are zero tolerance for corruption, headlined by personal example and an abiding commitment to public service in and out of office. His clampdown on the corrupt at the highest levels, though slammed for rights violation, is notable. His modest lifestyle and lack of personal affluence after over 20 decades in office is exceptional in Africa. Ghanaian presidents after him have imbibed this culture of simple lifestyle and culture of public service even in retirement.
After leaving office, Rawlings brought that moral stature to bear elsewhere around the continent, especially in Nigeria, drumming it home at every opportunity that Nigeria should lead other African countries in escaping from the scourge of underdevelopment. As his last duty, he was spotted somewhere in Ghana directing traffic.
Rawlings was a truly great man. Really, Ghana and indeed, Africa, has lost an icon. While disavowing the conditions that facilitated military intervention, the positive examples of Ghana’s dictator-turned-democrat, Rawlings, should serve as enduring markers for continental progress.
SOURCE: The Punch Ng