Flight Lieutenant Jerry John Rawlings photographed in 1984 (CREDIT: Genevieve Chauvel/Sygma)
It would be no exaggeration to assert that Jerry John Rawlings dominated the politics of Ghana as no other leader did, with the sole exception of Kwame Nkrumah.
As with Nkrumah, Rawlings rode the crest of an enormous level of national popularity, the product of a personal charisma that he was able to project to the masses. Yet, in life and death his legacy as a military ruler and civilian leader is often the subject of polarised debate.
For some he was the saviour of Ghana, the man who rescued his country from the pit of economic degeneration and enabled it to regain by large measure its previous mantle as the ‘Black Star of Africa’. To others he was a demagogue and an authoritarian who held his country hostage for two decades during which he betrayed the principles he had enjoined his countrymen to embrace when he first came to national prominence.
The contradictions in both the personality, as well as the leadership of Rawlings are stark: many who saw him up close considered him humble and down-to-earth. A man with the common touch. Yet his extravagant ways of expression and theatrical public presence were more than suggestive of a flamboyant egotism. He consistently spoke as an idealist, but often had to justify many of his major decisions in the realm of pragmatism. In a 1981 interview, he described himself as a “moderate” who believed in “peaceful revolution”, an irony given the political violence that characterised his first stint in power and the first decade of his second coming. He promised a “people’s democracy” but ended up presiding over an autocracy.
The blood spilled during his regimes made some dub him an African Robespierre. For them, Rawlings was the principal author of a form of diabolical vengeance when the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council, of which he was elected Chairman, sanctioned the execution of senior military officers.
A dominating, larger-than-life presence, he alternately charmed, cajoled, inspired, beguiled, and terrified Ghanaians.
But Rawlings was as much a phenomenon of self-invention as he was shaped and moulded by the forces propelling Ghanaian political history. Many refuse to acknowledge or seek to downplay the serious fractures in the severely politicised Ghanaian military which pointed to an inevitable ugly explosion with or without the agency of Rawlings.
And while his detractors point to his coup of 1981 as an illegal and hypocritical enterprise driven by egotistical ambition, they fail to give appropriate consideration to his putsch as a bold attempt by Rawlings to innovate an alternative system of governance to that which had failed Ghana and other parts of Black Africa.
For Rawlings was, at least at the outset of his second stint in power, determined, with the ideological tutoring of the “Legon Left”, to map out an economic programme that would remove Ghana from a harmful, but seemingly ineradicable dependence on the West.
Therefore, any purposeful and objective examination of the legacy of Rawlings cannot be solely based on the man alone and his perceived successes and failings but must necessarily comprehend an honest reflection on the part of his countrymen about enduring problems of tribal sentiment, endemic corruption, and institutional failings that have prevented Ghana from transforming itself into an economically independent post-colonial African nation.
© Adeyinka Makinde (2020).
Adeyinka Makinde is based in London. He has a keen interest in history and geopolitics.