/ 13 November 2021

The coup that changed Ghana forever

Pres Of Ghana Jj Rawlings
Clarion call: A new book examines the mind of JJ Rawlings, who led Ghana from 1981 to 2001. (William F Campbell/Getty Images)

After three coups d’état by senior military officers in Ghana, the image of the military had sunk so low that the promise of general elections in June 1979 was not enough to assuage Ghanaians. Feeling that it was necessary for the military to cleanse itself and restore its image, a group of young officers and other ranks of the Ghana Armed Forces mutinied. The leader, JJ Rawlings, and six others were put on trial by a military tribunal. 

Rawlings’ bold statements at the trial stirred the conscience of other ranks in the military and civil society. The result was a midnight release of all the accused from prison, followed by a campaign to “clean-up the military” before handing over power to a civilian government. 

The time was 5.09pm and the date, 15 May 1979. It was a Tuesday afternoon.

A commentator on the BBC African Service programme Focus on Africa was clearly heard saying: “How serious this uprising was is far from clear. What the motive would be is also less than clear. Ghana is of course scheduled to return to civil rule at the beginning of July, and it could be that some soldiers of the armed forces would like to stop that from happening. It is known that a number of army officers are worried that any future civilian government might vigorously investigate the military for corruption and malpractice during their seven years of administration.”

At this time, flight lieutenant Jerry John Rawlings was behind bars at the military intelligence annex, in Accra. He was not terribly disappointed that things had turned out that way. Of course, if the coup had succeeded, he would have been more satisfied. Yet anything could happen, he told himself. He would be put on trial, and as long as he got the chance to speak, he knew the whole world would hear his story.

Rawlings’ wife, Nana, said later that “he had been complaining unceasingly about injustices, corruption, abuse of office and other malpractices going on within the military administration”.

I looked into her face, expecting further details.

She continued: “I don’t know whether to tell you all this … Look, there came a time when I was hiding my ration of essential commodities from my workplace … from him”.


“You know what he did after work? He would either take an aircraft out diving or spend time riding horses at the recce. Otherwise he would just take his dog out into the bush or park somewhere. At times, he went swimming or fishing in the Volta River.

“The more he got involved in these activities, the more deprivation met him face to face. He told me that anytime he came upriver, swimming, the hungry, lean and dejected looks on the faces of the fishermen wore him down, so what he did was to carry the few so-called essential commodities we had in the house to the people at the riverside anytime he went oyster-fishing. Sometimes there would be nothing at home, so I had to find a way of hiding a few for ourselves.”

The next day, 16 May, the dailies carried news of the attempted coup.

An editorial in the Daily Graphic said in part: “The shock is deepened further by the fact that yesterday, a three-man delegation … was scheduled to present the final draft of the constitution to the Supreme Military Council (SMC) at the castle; a ceremony symbolising the meticulously planned and the steady steps being taken towards the June 18 election day. The question arises: what had the adventurers hoped to achieve at this period when the majority of Ghanaians have all tuned their minds to June 18 and after?”

The BBC’s programme, 24 Hours, continued with a staffer’s point of view: “There have been moments of discontent among the military, the army, particularly the middle-ranking officers and junior officers, because they fear that the army is going to be investigated vigorously by the future civilian government when it takes office in July. The military administration of the past seven years has become unpopular because of malpractices, stealing, pilfering and corruption.”

The commentator went on to say that since General Akuffo took power, his government had gone on “a campaign that laid all the guilt, corruption and malpractice on Acheampong’s administration, many of whose members are in the present SMC and who made policy decisions with him”.

The uprising shook the armed forces. A few of the junior officers and other ranks thought the shake-up was necessary. There were days when in the open Makola market, one soldier told me, women were bold enough to pour urine on a man in uniform who dared ask for prices.

Three days after the attempt, the army commander, Major General Odartey-Wellington, decorated the officers and men who “quelled the rebellion”.

In detention, Rawlings had no access to any medium of information. No newspaper. No radio. If he did, he would have been more than amused by what a commentator said on the African Service of the BBC on the morning of 19 May 1979: “According to one report, Rawlings wanted the military to stay in power for another two years.”

Long before 15 May, Rawlings had been jotting down some of the thoughts he held. One such note suggested that he had a message for the day: “You will find them everywhere and you ought to know them by now. He may be the departmental head, he may be the managing director, he may be the security officer or the distributor — if you and I will not assume the right to arrest them, let’s not expect anyone else to do it for us.

“Each and every one of us is either part of the problem or a part of the solution … You can neither belong to both nor remain neutral. If you cannot assume the courage to be a man now, then forever bury your complaints and remain the slave that you are. We have been deprived of leaders — selfless leaders who think first and foremost of their men, leaders who care first and foremost for the welfare of their subordinates, leaders who feel and understand the plight, the suffering of their people. Instead, we have been saddled with nothing but their own pleasures and how to hold on to power and ensure that they retire to luxury.”

Rawlings had begun jotting down his own defence: “Your worship, I’m here not to deny my efforts that led to the events of the 14th into the 15th; neither am I here to deny my convictions, my concepts, my beliefs, my conscience. Convictions I share with these honourable men [the other six accused], soldiers, but first and foremost citizens of this country . 

“Here we are going back to barracks, tainted, very much so, without any dynamic, drastic, radical attempt to purge and punish state criminals who have reduced us to this indignity. For me, anything, even death, is better than to be emasculated. Violence would have consumed a lot of lives and I couldn’t bear the thought of one innocent life being lost.

“Your worship, no change would have been more welcome than now.

“You must know how it means to be an underdog — to be exploited, to be oppressed. The underdog needs protection now more than ever before. Here he is, completely dispossessed of whatever he has, even his humanity. There is, in addition, a feeling of statelessness which has made it possible for aliens and crooks to control state power, the underdog feels helpless.”

One night, during his detention, Rawlings received a card from a relative wishing him well. After reading it, he asked for a pencil from one of the security guards and scribbled a few words on the same card. He had two days more to appear before a military court in the Burma Camp and he had to prepare his defence. Part of what he wrote was: “Your worship, no matter what you have in store for me and my men, let’s do something about the forces; if not, we will end up killing our conscience. A man holding a weapon without conscience can be dangerous …

“Your worship, if the past and the present can serve as a measure for tomorrow, can you imagine what is in store for us and the coming generation because of this inflation brought about by greed and inconsideration?

“The human quality of Ghana will drop. If we had any hopes of making our children any better or as good as we are, they will end up being worse and, since the white man’s culture is here to stay, the cost of maintaining it will rise and rise. I leave it to you to imagine the consequences…”

The Trial of JJ Rawlings is published by African Perspectives Publishing (www.africanperspectives.co.za). Kojo Yankah is a former member of parliament in Ghana. He also served as a minister of state in the Rawlings government. He is the founder and president of the African University College of Communications and also a former editor of the Daily Graphic in Ghana