The news of Jerry John Rawlings’ death on 12 November sent shockwaves reverberating across Ghana. It was hard to believe that our larger-than-life longest-serving ruler was no longer in our midst. He died after a short illness at a hospital in Accra about three weeks after he had buried his 101-year-old mother, who had died at the end of September. He was 73.
Rawlings was born in Accra on 22 June 1947 to James Ramsey John, a Scottish chemist, and Victoria Agbotui, a caterer from the Volta Region of Ghana. He attended the prestigious Achimota School in Accra, where he completed his secondary education in 1967. He then enlisted as a flight cadet in the Ghana Air Forceand was selected for officer cadet training at the Ghana Military Academy and Training School at Teshie in Accra. After a posting to the Western Region in March 1968, he passed as a commissioned pilot officer in January 1969, winning the coveted Speed Bird trophy as the best cadet in flying and airmanship.
Rawlings secured another win in 1977, tying the knot with Nana Konadu Agyeman, a former classmate at Achimota School, whom he had courted for more than a decade. Together, they would have three daughters: Zanetor, Yaa Asantewaa and Amina and a son, Kimathi.
He continued to excel in the military and was promoted to the rank of flight-lieutenant in April 1978. As an air force pilot, Rawlings travelled across Ghana and saw the steep disparity between the living conditions of Ghanaians in urban and rural areas. He was outraged by the military government’s corruption and the indiscipline permeating society. The Ghanaian economy was in precipitous decline and food and other basic goods were in short supply.
When the military government legalised political parties in January 1979, Rawlings became a vocal critic of the government, urging it to support the poor. His activism earned him a wide following, especially the poor. Propelled by this support, he led a group of junior officers to stage a failed coup on 15 May 1979 — five weeks before general elections were to be held — and was arrested and sentenced to death. His defence in court won him more support and sympathy from the civilian population. He stated: “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. I know what it feels like to go to bed with a headache, for want of food in the stomach.”
On 4 June 1979, a group of officers freed Rawlings from jail. He led them to overthrow the military government of General Fred Akuffo. At 32, Rawlings became the new leader of Ghana. To underscore the values of probity and accountability that he aimed to infuse into governance in Ghana, he ordered the execution by firing squad of Akuffo, two other former military heads of state and five senior military officers. Rawlings implemented a wider “house cleaning exercise”, entailing more executions, disappearances, imprisonments and public floggings to punish profiteering.
Elections went ahead as planned and on 24 September 1979, Rawlings handed over power to the new president, Hilla Limann. But disgruntled by the continuing economic decline under Limann, Rawlings retook power in a bloodless coup on 31 December 1981. His Provisional National Defence Council (PNDC) government consisted of military officers and civilians. Rawlings adopted a hands-on governance style, involving Ghanaians directly in rebuilding the country and labouring alongside them himself. University students took months off school to carry cocoa from the hinterlands to the ports for export. Ghanaians began to feel that they constituted the government.
Rawlings was popularly known as JJ then. And Ghanaians, in their typically jocular fashion, took to calling him Junior Jesus.
But the economy still foundered. The price controls and Marxist policies the PNDC initially implemented led to more decline. So Rawlings turned to the International Monetary Fund and World Bank for loans and introduced structural adjustment, a controversial economic policy which nonetheless allowed the economy to stabilise and grow.
Meanwhile, the PNDC stifled opposition and drove the media into silence. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Ghanaians clamoured for a return to democratic rule. Satisfied that the timing was right for democracy, Rawlings acceded. He reintroduced multiparty democracy in May 1992 and morphed the PNDC into the National Democratic Congress (NDC) party. He remained popular, entrancing crowds with his impassioned and humorous speeches and identifying with them by switching between different local languages.
He won the presidential election of November 1992 (which was adjudged free and fair) by a landslide and was re-elected in 1996. In 2000, his vice-president lost the election to John Kufuor of the New Patriotic Party (NPP). At Kufuor’s inauguration ceremony, Rawlings drew applause for a gesture he made to Ghanaians: he made the NDC and NPP hand symbols and crossed his index fingers, signifying unity. Peaceful transfers of power have been a mainstay of Ghana’s democracy since then.
In recent years, Rawlings frequently castigated his party for corruption and for not upholding the principles of probity, transparency and accountability. He also retained his ability to enthral Ghanaians. Online videos show him dancing with student performers at Achimota School’s Founders’ Day ceremony, cooking on a TV show and ordering miscreant drivers during a gridlock.
Papa J — as Rawlings came to be called in his later years – leaves an indelible mark in Ghana’s history and a huge void in the hearts of Ghanaians. He is survived by his wife, Nana Konadu Agyeman-Rawlings, and their four children.