Saturday, June 23, 2012

The Roaring Rawlings

In a sea of well-cut Savile Row suits and ladies in mourning black hats and dresses, the thickset, elegantly graying man cut an impressive figure in a black open-neck Africa shirt.

That was during the burial of Internal Security Minister Prof. George Saitoti. During the burial the former dictator-turned-democrat impressed mourners with his eloquence, especially when he regretted humanity’s inability to harvest the dead man’s brilliant brain and transfer it to a living one.

But unlike his friend Prof. Saitoti, whose manners he extolled Kenyans to “imbibe”, who was handpicked from a classroom by retired President Daniel arap Moi and handed high profile state jobs on a silver platter, Rawlings is a bare knuckled politician who learnt his tricks from the school of hard knocks.

As a junior air force officer he narrowly cheated death after being condemned by a court marshal for leading a mutiny while as president he is said to have survived numerous coup and assassination attempts.

Born Jeremiah Rawlings John in 1947, later renamed Jerry John Rawlings, to a Ghanaian mother and a Scottish father JJ, as his he is popularly known among his followers, is the most influential political figure in Ghana after the founding father Kwameh Nkrumah.

After joining the Ghanaian Air Force in 1968, where he distinguished himself by winning the coveted “Speed Bird Trophy” for excellence in aerobatics skills, the man who confesses to having an obsession for drawing gorgeous women during his youth burst into the limelight when he led a mutiny in 1979.

In a statement read in court on his behalf by his defense, Rawlings won hearts across the country he sensationally explained that his actions were prompted by the social injustices that were bedeviling the Ghana at that time.

Apparently inspired by Rawling’s courtroom oratory, a group of officers instigated a successful putsch in June 1979 and released him from prison. Through a ruling body named the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council (AFRC), Rawlings and his ruling cronies executed two former military heads of state Gen. Ignatius Acheampong and Lieut. Gen. Fredrick Akuffo and five former generals, whom he accused of committing crimes against the people and the country.

Other prominent people killed under what Rawlings and his junta termed “house-cleansing exercise” included Supreme Court Justices Kwadjo Agyepong, Frederick Sarkodie and Cecilia Addo.

Some Ghanaian historians have exonerated the former dictator from these cold blood murders by claiming that the country was in a state of anarchy with both civilians and lower ranks members of the military baying for the blood of the deposed rulers.
AFRC yielded power to civilian leader Hilla Limann but came back to power through another coup in December 1981 to get rid of “weak civilian rule” which had led “the nation down to total economic ruin”. After imprisoning Limann and 200 other politicians, Rawlings established the People’s Defense Committees in neighbourhoods to monitor economic management in local factories.

“When the failure of these and other populist measures had become clear by 1983, Rawlings reversed course and adopted conservative economic policies, including dropping subsidies and price controls in order to reduce inflation, privatizing many state-owned companies, and devaluing the currency in order to stimulate exports,” Encyclopedia Britannica notes. “These free-market measures sharply revived Ghana’s economy, which by the early 1990s had one of the highest growth rates in Africa”.
Despite ruling the country with an iron fist for a decade before being democratically elected in 1992, economic experts have credited Rawlings regime for initiating radical policies like decentralization of government services from Accra to the rural regions which created the foundation on which the Ghanaian democracy and economy stands today.

After the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War, Rawlings aligned himself with the West which saw IMF and the World Bank pumping more than $5 billion into the Ghanaian economy leading to a huge business growth and improved standards of living. This led to his being accused of “betraying the revolution” by his left-wing comrades.

To qualify as a candidate in the 1992 multiparty elections, “JJ” retired from the army and founded the National Democratic Congress (NDC) through which he successfully won the presidential race with a landslide majority of 58.3 percent. The figure remains the highest score in the country’s history and an endorsement of his radical economic policies that drastically curbed inflation.

Although foreign observers declared the poll to be free and fair the opposition led by Sammy Kuffuor, who later became president, claimed there was widespread irregularities and urged their supporters to boycott the subsequent parliamentary elections. This saw the NDC win 189 out of the 200 seats available in the national assembly, giving Rawlings a four-year term backed by a rubberstamp parliament.
By the time he was seeking another term in 1996 Rawlings had already made history as the first democratically elected Ghanaian president to complete his term.

His 19-year reign as both military dictator and elected leader were characterized by eccentricity and flamboyant displays that made him a household name not only in Ghana but also across the continent. Besides mobilizing his wife and ministers to join citizens in digging trenches, sinking boreholes and constructing roads Rawling’s presidential motorcade would often give lifts to people on the road.

Other times he would stop his entourage to borrow a cigarette from a man on the street, take a few puffs and put the rest behind his ear for later all in a quest “to be equal with everyone”, as he would later explain.

This outgoing mien was in display when he visited Kenya in May to update President Mwai Kibaki on the Somalia situation as the African Union Special Envoy. During his stay at the Tribe Hotel in Nairobi he easily mixed with ordinary people and took photos with the hotel staff and security guards.

“I knew that Ghana would not be brought out of the political abyss of 1981 without a visionary, but more importantly, the people were yearning for nothing less than a popular democracy,” Rawlings said during an interview with Rev. Jesse Jackson on CNN’s Both Sides with Jesse Jackson in 1999. “They were asking for nothing more than the power to be part of the decision-making process of their country…they wanted a voice in deciding their everyday life, as it is done in the West, and not for politicians to be dominant and who are all-knowing to be at the helm of affairs of everyday life in Ghana”.

When he reached his constitutional eight-year term in 2000, Rawlings endorsed his vice-president John Evans Atta-Mills who was defeated by John Agyekum Kufuor of New Patriotic Party (NPP) in a run-off. Atta-Mills is the incumbent head of state after winning the 2008 elections by a one percent margin in the run-off.

But the fact that his party National Democratic Congress (NDC) and former vice-president is in power has not gagged the outspoken Rawlings from criticizing and pointing out what he terms as weaknesses in the Ghanaian society today.

“I remember I used to warn ourselves that if we do not deal, restore the moral behaviour and ethical values of our society, we will sink deep,” he observed during a gala to honour a testimonial match for former Bayern Munich and Black Star player Sammy Kufuor. “All those big countries we see, they have not thrown their values overboard in spite of all the money they have. How could you adopt money to replace your values? I have said over and over and I will continue repeating it”.

Dubbed “Mr. Boom” by the media for his explosive statements whenever he speaks his mind, Rawlings is yet again in the fray of the Ghanaian politics where he has openly asked his fellow countrymen to give his wife Nana Agyeman-Rawlings “the chance to rescue the country from the current leadership crisis”.

Accusing “the current crop of NDC (the party he formed in 1992) members, especially those in leadership of leading the party far from the principle and values on which the party was founded”, Rawlings has been drumming up support for his wife in rallies across the country in what have been termed a ploy to rule again by proxy.

But after being rejected by NDC delegates as the party’s presidential candidate last July, she only got 90 votes against Atta Mills 2,771, many commentators termed the crashing defeat as a confirmation that JJ’s fading political influence in Ghana.
“This defeat was a clear sign that the NDC is fed up with Mr. Rawlings,” Mr. Jacob Manu, a governance expert, told the press. “Most Ghanaians have come to see Mr. Rawlings as someone who thinks he is the only wise man in Ghana. This cannot be the case and a time would come when the people would kick against you”.

Rawlings married Nana in 1977 and they have four children, three daughters and a son. The son, 24, is called Kimathi Rawlings after the famous Kenyan freedom fighter Dedan Kimathi whom the former Ghanaian leader greatly admires as he confessed during his recent visit to Kenya. Nana recently filed a lawsuit seeking to against NDC seeking to take back the party’s umbrella logo which she claims is her intellectual property.

Among the accusations that the vocal polo-loving leader has leveled against the current regime is an attempt to revive and strengthen Kwame Nkrumah’s Convention People’s Party (CPP).

President John Atta Mills have taken several key attempts to immortalize Nkrumah’s legacy. Besides the country spending a whole year celebrating the century anniversary of Nkrumah’s birth in 2010 there is now a public holiday to mark the founding father’s birthday on September 24 and an oilrig that has been named after him.

While implying that he would like to see his former vice-president defeated by the opposition NPP in the upcoming elections so that “we can take back our party” Rawlings, who has since been stripped of diplomatic courtesies in Ghana and the country’s missions abroad, minced no words in his verbal attack.

“So long as they hold on to power and with some of our supporters persistently refusing to see the truth and what should have been done, then it becomes difficult to take back our party,” he was quoted in Ghanaian media saying in May this year. “Some are justified in saying those in office are not genuinely minded, NDC spirited, NDC-hearted people and want to destroy the party in favour of something else”.

With his nickname JJ coined into Junior Jesus by fanatical supporters or Junior Judas by opponents at the height of his power during his two decade reign, many Ghanaians appear tired with his “big brother” attitude and apparent political hangovers of yesteryears, a fact confirmed by strong sentiments in the press and his wife’s humiliating defeat in the NDC primaries.

“I am not a bitter person and very much willing to forgive this ignorant political novice who has not matured beyond adolescence and still plaque by infantile tantrum when he does have his way,” wrote columnist Phillip Kobina Baidoo in The Chronicle, a Ghanaian newspaper. “His actions during his 19 year reign were eerily similar to the erroneous prescription of medieval parish priest who during those highly contagious fatal epidemics encouraged their congregants to gather in churches to pray for God’s intervention while inadvertently spreading the contagion”.

Despite sharp criticism at home, Rawlings remains relatively popular across the continent as evidenced by invitations to major gatherings and being accorded respect by sitting heads of state as was witnessed when he visited Kenya last week.

In October 2010, the 64 year-old was appointed the African Union (AU) Envoy to Somalia by the Union’s chief Jean Ping with the task of “mobilizing the continent and the rest of the international community to fully assume its responsibilities and contribute more actively to the quest for peace, security and reconciliation of Somalia”.

Besides being an AU Envoy to Somalia, Rawlings also gives lectures and talks around the world, the most famous being the lecture he gave at the prestigious Oxford University in the United Kingdom under the title “Security and Democracy in Africa”.
Asked about what he would like to be remembered for Jerry John Rawlings turns philosophical in what many believers would term blasphemous.

“My legacy to the people of Ghana and that I never let God do anything for me. I did it first”.

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