When he burst onto the African scene in 1979, he exuded revolution personified. On a continent most of whose peoples were yearning for the realization of the fruits of independence, he represented renewed hope.
Alas, today we mourn Jerry John Rawlings, Ghana’s leader between 1979 and 2001, with interesting interruptions. Sadly, he suddenly passed away last Tuesday, November 12, 2020, at the age of 73.
In his days as president of Ghana, he was variously termed a maverick, a “man of the people” and even idolised as “Junior Jesus”.
And indeed, as soon as he became president, following a coup of junior military officers that he led, he could as well have been of the stuff that heavenly wonders are made of. At the young age of 32, he had been sprung out of prison where, a month previously, he had been sentenced to death for staging a failed coup.
In court, when asked why he attempted to stage a coup d’état, JJ is reported to have responded: “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 rested his case with: “I know what it feels like going to bed with a headache, for want of food in the stomach.” The message rang clear: a champion of the people to the hilt.
The plea resonated so much with the citizens that, by dint of their sheer big numbers, they probably would have yanked him out of prison if a group of soldiers did not take the chance for themselves.
And so JJ was snatched from prison to soon take over the mantle of leadership.
What happened next in his “house cleaning exercise” – getting rid of corrupt officials and other captains of anti-social practices – shook Ghana and the rest of Africa to the core.
In short shrift, he oversaw public executions by firing squad of three heads of state of previous years and eight military officers. Along with them, over 300 Ghanaians are said to have fallen to his sword. In a country that had hardly known any violence, this rattled many a citizen.
However, his impassioned, spellbinding speech-expression of the gluttony of the leaders amid the wretchedness of the citizenry, in English that was mixed with the tribal language of whatever region he visited, had completely bound the citizenry with him.
This fact and the picture of a bare-chested young soldier in a military jumpsuit leading a group of volunteers in manual work had created a lasting appeal for many before the maverick sprang another surprise in a few months.
On September 24, 1979, he peacefully handed over power to a civilian leader.
With the economy still deteriorating (upon which actually he himself hadn’t made much impression, unfortunately), plus the rot in government that was creeping back, JJ was back to oust the civilian president!
This time round, three Court Justices and a few military officers are said to have paid the price of their malpractices but, at least (!), in secret killings.
And now he set about the business of rebuilding the country. Perhaps for occasional counsel, his guests of choice were revolutionaries of the time like Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua, Sam Nujoma of Namibia, et al. He also quashed the boycott of Muamar Gadhafi’s Libya.
All this did not yield much, however, as his Provisional National Defence Council that was representative of the people lacked experience in the creation and implementation of clear policies. A four-year economic programme of state monopoly in export-import trade put into effect unrealistic price controls through coercive acts, especially against business people.
And so he started to ease up. He liberalised the economy and lifted a ban on political parties.
Then he transformed into a civilian politician and contested in the multiparty elections of November, 1992, which he won. He was loathed by some but still loved by many more.
A new constitution was put into effect and he followed an economic recovery programme as advised by the World Bank and the IMF. The economy thus began to pick up but the canker of corruption was still gnawing at the nation.
That notwithstanding, at the end of his term in 2001 JJ went into retirement.
Not that his whirlwind life ground to a halt, no.
Now and again he could be caught castigating the ills of the leaderships that succeeded him. Or you could catch him gesturing at drivers on the streets during a traffic snarl-up or at whatever else pricked his conscience. He lent his services to the AU, UN, gave lectures and was Chair of the Thomas Sankara Memorial Committee.
This has served to show us that novice leaderships that take off from the word go as if they’ve been at the ropes all their lives are a once-in-a-lifetime. They are like shooting stars (kibonumwe?) and none should take them for granted.
JJ, you served your time as best you could. May your soul Rest In Peace!