When I checked my overnight text messages the other morning, one of the messages jolted me. It was a text from a friend informing me that Ghana’s former President, Jerry Rawlings, has died. I was jolted because it wasn’t that long ago that I watched an interview in which he complained of mistreatment by the current government. He seemed more resigned than bitter, yet his words could only elicit compassion.
Particularly touching was his account of needing to fly his wife overseas for critical treatment but lacking the means to do so. When he turned to the government for help, he was turned down. So, he had to raise money by canvassing the support of friends and associates. What was especially notable wasn’t the government’s refusal to help. It was what this story says about the kind of leader Rawlings was.
Rawlings was in power for about 20 years — 12 as a charismatic military despot and eight as a two-term elected president. Over those years, he must have had ample opportunity to stash away millions (maybe billions) of dollars in foreign accounts. But he didn’t. He could have appropriated key industries to serve as his cash cow long after retirement. In Nigeria, generals were allotted oil fields, among other spoils of power. But he didn’t.
It was Rawlings’ selfless service that ultimately revived a Ghanaian economy that had bottomed out early in his tenure. Yet in his moment of need, the government turned him away. The reason could well be that Ghanaians are divided over whether Rawlings was a hero or a villain. It is a divide that gives cause to ponder the options open to countries such as Nigeria that desperately need civic cleansing.
The morning I got news of Rawlings’ death, my first thought was to text a condolence message to a Ghanaian friend. Her father died some weeks earlier, and I wanted to express my sympathy that she had just lost another hero. But I quickly reconsidered that phrasing, choosing to be circumspect instead.
Her first response was correspondingly cagey. Actually, she forwarded me what she had posted on an alumni forum where “classmates were sharing heartbreaking stories of Rawlings’ militant years.” Her post was unusually hazy. As the host of a public affairs broadcast programme, she was being guarded. But after some prodding, she opened up.
“I think he was a great person,” she texted. “He was charismatic and told things like they were. I don’t know if his leadership would have been effective without the more extreme things he was accused of. And sometimes I wonder if the times didn’t demand it. But then, no one I knew or loved was a victim, so it’s easy for me to say.”
That last sentence is, of course, a huge caveat. And I will come back to it. First, we consider the view of another Ghanaian acquaintance, Faustina Korley, a US-based seamstress. She too was full of praise for Rawlings. In fact, aspects of her characterisation seemed coordinated with my Ghana-based friend.
“He was one of our great presidents, very charismatic and had great ideas for Ghana,” she texted. “He spoke his mind, and even when his party went wrong, he called them out. He was so concerned about the grassroots, he encouraged Ghanaians to mobilise and build their communities and not wait on the government to do that for them, and communities took up on that.”
Then Korley added her own caveat, a strongly worded caveat. “But the senseless killings that took place became a very dark era in Ghana, and the homes that were destroyed are still reeling from the effects up till today,” Korley continued. “Over the years he gave interviews about the killings but never apologised in any way, and that bothers a lot of Ghanaians. These are things that tarnished his image in a way but he was well loved by many, including me.”
Nothing better encapsulates Rawlings’ legacy than that someone who blames him for “senseless killings” loves him nonetheless. Even more telling is that what Korley sees as a character flaw, the programme host sees as a virtue. “I admire those with principles they stand by, and he stood by all his actions, never apologising for any of it,” the broadcaster said.
During Ghana’s ‘dark era’ in the early 1980s, I was sharing an apartment with a fellow postgraduate student from Ghana. He had just graduated from the University of Ghana, and he recalled how the students cheered on Rawlings and sometimes even prodded him to execute political and military leaders they blamed for Ghana’s floundering economy. Among them were generals Akwasi Afrifa and Frederick Akuffo and Col. Ignatius Achaempong.
The Ghana Bar Association has estimated that more than 200 people disappeared during those heady years, all of them presumed abducted and secretly executed. Even traders were roughed up for allegedly hoarding or inflating prices.
My apartment mate narrated the students’ fervent support of these actions, apparently unaware that his accounts were sending shivers down my spine. On occasion, I would point out the haphazard — sometimes secretive — nature of the ‘trials’ and I wondered whether some of the offences warranted execution.
“Old Boy,” he would start and then pause, stare blankly and gradually shake his head. It was obvious that he was being made to ponder. Still, he would end up affirming the necessity. Ghana was in deep trouble and needed to be rescued, he would say.
Maybe so! Yet those executions, imprisonments, floggings and other brutalities have left their scars on Ghana’s national psyche. Rawlings ruled Ghana for about 20 years, including a period of the harshest economy. Things were so bad that the Ghanaian currency the cedi was deemed worthless in the foreign exchange market. My apartment mate used to lament needing thousands of cedis just to get a loaf of bread.
One wonders whether as a military officer, Rawlings would have let a civilian president muddle through it. On the other hand, one wonders also whether a civilian president would have had the courage — and political capital — to impose the austerity and discipline that made recovery possible.
During those years, Ghanaians were thronging to Nigeria in desperate search for livelihood.
They were made scapegoats in Nigeria for Nigeria’s own deteriorating economy. That spurred one of the shames of the nation, the herding of Ghanaians out of Nigeria with the slogan, “Ghana must go.” Today, it is Ghanaians who are very much saying, “Nigerians must go.”
In his book, Ghana and the Rawlings Factor, British historian, Kevin Shillington, writes that Rawlings’ leadership was underpinned by his compassion for the masses. One of what inflamed Rawlings early in life was seeing the suffering resulting from the collapse of buildings intended to house people displaced by the construction of a dam. The buildings were poorly constructed, not because of insufficient funding or incompetence. Rather much of the money was siphoned by officials and contractors.
“He had been brought up to believe that people in authority should display the highest level of integrity and yet everywhere he saw numerous examples of people in authority enriching themselves at the expense of the poor and the helpless,” Shillington writes.
And that’s what engendered the Rawlings revolution — and its legacy. What still vexes many Ghanaians is whether so much bloodshed and harshness was necessary to pursue the cause.