The passing of Jerry John Rawlings

Lessons on radical politics from a 1970s political-cultural icon. Rawlings also dominated and shaped Ghanaian politics through the 1980s and 1990s.

Jerry Rawlings being saluted by UN peacekeepers in Somalia. Image credit Stuart Price for AU-UN IST via Flickr CC.

Early on November 12th, retired Major Henry Smith called me from London to tell me that his former comrade and friend, Flight Lieutenant Jerry John Rawlings had died. Rawlings lived many lives, transforming from idealistic young Air Force pilot to imprisoned coup-plotter to Chairman of two revolutionary military regimes to champion of neoliberal reform and President of Ghana’s 4th Republic, before peacefully handing over power in 2001. I had gotten to know Rawlings over several years after he graciously allowed me to do a series of interviews for a book on the revolutionary era in Ghana. I was disturbed to read the international coverage of his passing which was not only riddled with factual errors but told a simplistic story of a stereotypic autocratic African military ruler.

Rawlings was the transcendent African political figure of his generation. His complex story reveals the grand political transformations of the late 20th century and the ongoing significance of 1970s global geopolitics. He was one of the last radical 1970s heads of state, and one of the few who lived to old age and in his own country. He maintained a lifelong passion for alleviating the suffering of the nation’s and the continent’s most needy citizens. Most revolutionaries of that era, died in exile or, like Maurice Bishop in Grenada and Thomas Sankara in Burkina Faso, were killed as they challenged the West and experimented with new forms of governance.

As news of his sudden death spread in Ghanaian circles, a flood of memories of successes, violences, and traumas came pouring out from the general public as well as key political actors who had supported and opposed him in shaping Ghana in the 1970s and 1980s. Continuing controversies around his legacy speak to his ongoing significance.

Rawlings, born in 1947, was of the generation that came of age around Ghana’s independence in 1957. Ongoing Cold War struggles, opposition to white rule in southern Africa, the Algerian Revolution, and the Nigeria-Biafra civil war shaped the worldview of politically-minded Ghanaians. He was part of Accra’s aspiring cosmopolitan scene where young men and women—as in cities across the continent—blended counterculture and Black pride, highlife, soul, R&B, and Afrobeat music and the latest fashions with an anti-imperial sensibility. In this context, uprisings could be vehicles for foreign manipulation or ways voiceless young critics of neocolonialism experimented with the promises of freedom. Coups became so frequent around the continent that, as Chinua Achebe joked to me once, radio stations like the Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation had established ritual protocols and set music for when rebel soldiers arrived to make overthrow proclamations.

In the late 1960s, Henry Smith, a young army officer and committed socialist had been instrumental in bringing Rawlings, a young Air Force fighter pilot, into the Free Africa Movement (FAM) organized by journalist turned infantry officer Major Kojo Boakye Djan (Rtd). It was a clandestine group of officers and intellectuals that discussed Marx, Mao, and Guevara and listened to LPs of Malcolm X speeches. FAM had a long-term plan to lead a coup in 10 years, when the young officers would be in senior positions. Their aim was to spark a series of uprisings around Africa and realize Kwame Nkrumah’s vision of a politically-unified continent. Rawlings was particularly impassioned when he first read Frantz Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth through the group. He told me how he carried Fanon around for months and laughed remembering how he quoted long passages to whoever would listen.

As the Ghanaian economy stagnated in the mid-1970s there were strikes, food and commodity shortages, hoarding, and black-market price hikes. Rawlings remembered the growing resentment. “People were hungry … Most officers could not see it, but I saw there was anger in the men’s eyes.” Rawlings grew impatient. “All Boakye Djan did was talk … he was never going to act,” he recalled.

Rawlings began organizing his own alternative network, estimating that he tried 12 times to launch a coup. On May 15th 1979, he led a handful of Air Force men in what he explained to me was more an attempt to spark action against corruption and suffering than a take-over. They were arrested after surrendering. At his subsequent public treason trial, prosecutors highlighted Rawlings’s concern with inequality and exploitation. Newspaper and radio accounts quoted Rawlings as having said “Leave my men alone” when they were arrested. The media portrait of Rawlings as a self-sacrificial hero transformed him overnight into national celebrity.

Boakye Djan and Smith were angry that Rawlings had moved without them but rallied to fast-forward FAM’s timeline and break him out of jail. Before dawn on June 4th Air Force and 5th Battalion soldiers started an uprising in the barracks. Rawlings’ future changed at 6am on June 4th 1979, when he gave an improvised speech live on the radio. He was breathless after running 500 meters to Ghana Broadcasting House. In those days, radio was the main media for communication. That Monday, instead of the early morning news, Rawlings’ voice entered the houses, markets, and offices of the nation declaring, “The ranks have just gotten me out of my jail cell … They have taken over the destiny of the nation…” Crucially, he did not say he was in charge of the country, as would be typical of a coup announcement, but rather proclaimed that the future was uncertain. He said that the rampaging soldiers were angry, “full of malice that we have put into them” and that a moral reckoning was coming. Radios crackled as he shouted into the microphone and banged his fist on the table. His voice sent shock waves. One teenager recalls listening from his family house. “When I heard his voice that first time, the hair on the back of my neck stood up. We all ran outside to see what was happening.”

Rawlings did not know of the plan ahead of time. When the soldiers broke open his cell he recalls being uncertain if it was a government trick to kill him as he escaped. While he neither planned nor even fought in the insurrection, he was perfectly cast to play the hero who could unite a fractured public. He was a natural performer attuned to the power of spectacle. He was lean, muscular, and handsome and wore his neat Afro, scruffy beard, and aviator sunglasses with the hyper-masculine swagger of a film star. He was “light-skinned,” the progeny of a Gold Coast Anlo-Ewe mother and Scottish father which, in a post-independence racial-cultural logic, made him cosmopolitan to working people and enigmatic to more established families.

Rawling was made Chairman of the new Armed Forces Revolutionary Council. He pledged to maintain the schedule for upcoming democratic elections and the handover to a civilian government but first would oversee “housecleaning” exercises to purge the nation of indiscipline and corruption. However, Rawlings recalled the young officers were only tenuously in control. He explained, “We were riding the back of a tiger,” as they struggled to contain violence they had released. As one student at the time told me, “June 4th unleashed the worst in Ghanaians. The violence was traumatic … but … people have to remember we were suffering and had nothing to lose…. People who now do not want to admit it were calling for blood.” On June 16th and June 26th the AFRC executed eight military leaders including three former heads of state by firing squad. Students and workers continued to march in the streets, calling for more sacrifices, chanting “Let the Blood Flow!”

After three months, the AFRC handed over to the newly elected 3rd Republic with a warning to the new president Dr. Hilla Limann that the soldiers would be watching. While most AFRC members were sent abroad, intellectuals in the New Democratic Movement (NDM) and young radicals in the June 4th Movement (JFM) took up the revolutionary torch. Rawlings remained the most popular man in Ghana and, with the help of a new batch of radicals, plotted a return to power.

On December 31st 1981, Rawlings led another uprising to oust Limann. This time he intended to stay, announcing on radio “Fellow citizens of Ghana … this is not a coup. I ask for nothing less than a revolution.  Something that will transform the social and economic order of this country.”

Rawlings ruled as Chairman of the Provisional National Defense Council (PNDC). His charisma drew together a diverse, if brief, coalition of Marxists, unionists, workers, intellectuals, artists, law-and-order soldiers, and centrist civil servants aiming to restructure Ghanaian society.

The country was fractured and financially broke. Idealistic JFM leftists felt they had made possible Rawlings’s “second coming” and wanted to implement radical structural changes. They sought financial support from the Soviet bloc though could not secure funds. Centrists and moderates, however, were concerned with imminent food, fuel, and medicine shortages.

Ghana’s radical turn was not unique but rather was part of a rebellious explosion around the world in 1979 as in Iran, Afghanistan, South Korea, Nicaragua, Grenada, and El Salvador conflicts exploded. This was perhaps the final moment when sustained radical critiques of capitalist geopolitics arose across the globe, only to be squashed in the coming years by the Reagan-Thatcher Cold War end-game that combined covert intervention and free market economic restructuring.

After intense debate, Rawlings supported Ghana’s acceptance of an IMF Structural Adjustment Program that mandated state privatization and over time opened the economy to international finance capital.

Leftists were furious. In their minds, they had brought Rawlings to power and he had betrayed them. Right-wing soldiers, conversely, bridled at the disrespect for military hierarchy and what they saw as Rawling’s illegitimate left-leaning leadership.

In June 1982, three high court judges and one retired officer were murdered. While a PNDC member was executed for the crime, for most people responsibility for the act still lay with Rawlings’s regime as the case seemed connected to questions around sovereignty and the legality of revolutionary activities.

For many this was a breaking point. Left factions were forced out or fled into exile. Moderates resigned. John Kufuor, who would be elected President in 2000, was an opposition member invited to join Rawlings’s government. He explained to me that after the death of the judges he saw no way forward and resigned.

In London, Lome, and Lagos diverse cohorts of former Rawlings allies from leftist radicals to right-wing law-and-order soldiers created improbable alliances and, with foreign assistance, launched plots to oust Rawlings. The regime faced numerous coup-attempts and constant challenges to its legitimacy from all sides. As one soldier who led a failed coup attempt and then fled into exile explained, at the time power was up for grabs and it was not clear whether Rawlings or one of several other factions, would prevail.

Rawlings survived by meeting opposition with force and slowly rebuilding state security and stability. He also projected a revolutionary image. He descended from military helicopters as crowds chanted “JJ!” and gave speeches from atop armored cars. He removed his shirt to help students carry sacks of cocoa, clean gutters, and help soldiers extinguish fires. He felt at home doing physical labor with regular people. But he took precautions against insurrection, tightening his inner circle, sleeping in rotating undisclosed locations, using bodyguards who resembled him to drive through town on a motorcycle.

If sovereignty is defined by who controls the legitimate use of violence, then one of the keys to understanding the evolution of Rawlings is his ability to transform himself from insurgent to head of state. As a young radical he had challenged the state’s monopoly on violence and claimed the moral right to defend the oppressed. Later, Rawlings became the embodiment of the state, centralizing power and legitimizing his use of force against rival claims to authority. If, at first, he challenged the very legitimacy of the state, later, he fought to restore its hegemony and its right to defend its borders and build civil society.

He oversaw re-building the nation’s infrastructure and writing a new constitution. With the reestablishment of party politics, he founded the National Democratic Congress (NDC) and was elected first President of Ghana’s 4th Republic in 1992. In moving from populist military leader to civilian President, he oversaw the building of a neoliberal service economy, a growing middle class, the privatization of state resources, and the proliferation of private media. He stepped down after two terms in 2001, becoming the first former military leader to win democratic elections then voluntarily leave power.

As Rawlings’s rule ended, the country struggled to understand his legacy.

I first met Rawlings in 1999 when I was working as a photographer at the torch lighting ceremony for the 20th anniversary of the June 4th 1979 uprising. I listened as journalists commented on the middle-aged civilian President squeezing into his old Flight Lieutenant uniform as if he was trying to be two different people at once. He had held Ghana’s factions together over 20-years because of his flexibility and duality. His revolutionary, pan-Africanist persona allowed Ghana to maintain a radical image while slowly building a secure centrist state oriented towards the global free-market. He stood at the nation’s crossroads, embodying the contradictory tendencies and moral polarities of a generation striving for a new future while being pulled backwards and forwards. He was a savior to some and a devil to others.

J.J. had been called “Junior Jesus” by masses of students, workers, and soldiers who saw him as a moral crusader who understood their hunger and frustrations. He remained their hero. They celebrated him for recognizing their humanity and saving the nation from indiscipline. Rawlings argued that he had struggled to moderate the more violent elements of the revolution. Proponents said he ultimately was a strategic pragmatist whose use of military discipline saved the country from catastrophic civil wars like in Liberia and Nigeria.

Others called him “Junior Judas,” accusing him of betraying his supporters and setting the country backwards. Relatives and intimates of those killed, detained, and tortured in various revolts have continued to hold Rawlings personally responsible for the deaths and for the destruction and vindictiveness of the soldiers. Children endured not only hearing in the press of their parents’ deaths but watched as the nation celebrated. In a country where families are closely acquainted, this simmering trauma and anger burst into public and became a constant refrain after Rawlings stepped down and those in exile began to return to the country.

Over 50 years, Rawlings had numerous circles of intimates and confidants in the military and politics. Many remained profoundly loyal to him. Others felt cast-off as new factions gained favor. Many soldiers who loyally followed him and did the bulk of the fighting, watched from the background as others benefiting from their sacrifices. Leftists and unionists instrumental in bringing him to power in both 1979 and 1981, felt he betrayed Pan-Africanism and socialism and ended Ghana’s best chance to imagine a new post-imperial order. Marxist intellectuals, bristled at Rawlings’s revolutionary public persona, arguing it was ironic because he in fact saved the nation’s bourgeoisie. The middle-class, for its part, saw him, not as fighting indiscipline, but as the instigator of violence who destroyed the nation’s civility just as it was stabilizing.

Rawlings’ political genius was his ability to channel the emotions of the masses; he could read people and act decisively in response. He made anyone feel like the most important person in the room, like they were a part of something important. Many have pointed out he was a natural performer and intuitive improviser with the ability to draw the attention and loyalty of large and small audiences. Like all good politicians, Rawlings understood the importance of narrative, but over time, he wondered how his story would be told and what his long-term legacy would be. Playwright and PNDC Secretary Mohammed Ben Abdallah recalled that in the late 1980s, at the end of a meeting, Rawlings suddenly became introspective and asked no one in particular. “Who will tell the stories of the revolution? … Who will talk to future generations about what we have accomplished?” Abdallah took on this task in plays he wrote while simultaneously in government, telling tales of the impossible moral choices faced by African leaders caught between the needs of the masses, capitalist desires, and pressures from the West. In Witch of Mopti, for example, the ruler of Mopti realizes that everyone in his nation has gone crazy by drinking from the well of madness. In the play’s climax, he chooses to drink from the well himself rather than abandoning his people.

The first few times I interviewed Rawlings at his office in an old colonial-era bungalow off Independence Avenue, I explained to him that I wanted to tell a non-partisan story of Ghana’s revolutionary days. But at first, I was so overwhelmed by his charisma it was hard to properly ask questions. He was a great storyteller rendering people’s desires, weaknesses, and character in a few brush strokes. He reveled in keeping his audience rapt. One time when he was telling me about eluding military intelligence, I leaned forward, taking notes furiously. He suddenly teased me that I was too interested in the story so he would save the ending for later. I tried to act nonchalant while asking him to continue the story. Several times, I arrived at his office expecting to stay for an hour and was there for seven hours and several meals. He could start on one topic, detour across several decades for an hour, before returning to the original theme. I eventually mustered the courage to ask difficult questions—about former allies turned enemies, and about the executions. He said that the real stories about Ghana’s past had been hidden for too long and the truth needed to come out for the nation to move forward. He was awash in decades of struggles for power that hinged on intense disagreements over political history. Rawlings was working on his own book and collecting stories, interviews, and materials from his past. When I asked to corroborate details or when similar moments blurred together, he would call an old soldier to help him recollect or send me to meet with a former bodyguard, armored car driver, or security operative with first-hand knowledge. I sought out his allies, enemies, and former colleagues to collate multiple tales of Ghana’s political journey. The more people I spoke with the more contradictory versions of events I got. I struggled as a scholar to put together a singular story. I also began to realize that Rawlings’s political success partially stemmed from his storytelling ability that kept him at the center of the national narrative.

The last time I talked with Rawlings he was in a reflective mood. I had brought an MP3 of his coup announcement from June 4th 1979 and we sat in his office listening. He tilted his head back and tapped his hand to the rhythm of his younger self. In that moment of radical personal and national uncertainty he had presented a vision of sovereignty in which as he had pronounced, “You are either a part of the problem or a part of the solution there is no middle way … Natural leaders will now emerge not those imposed upon us.” These utterances that launched him onto the national stage over 40 years earlier defined a moral landscape of power that the country navigated through subsequent decades. After playing the announcement a few times, I asked him if I could look at the old flight helmet he kept in a glass case near his desk. He took it out and held it with what seemed like both an old excitement and weariness.

As the revolutionary past grew increasingly distant for young Ghanaians, he lamented that sacrifices of the June 4th uprising and December 31st revolution had been wasted as the corruption and indiscipline that had caused so much anger back then were nothing compared to current levels of graft and inequality. It seemed that the burden of multiple past political battles weighed heavily on his shoulders. Rawlings was not someone to regret or apologize. But I think his way of taking responsibility for the violence of the revolutionary days was to remain strategically silent on some issues, even as he spoke at length. He had claimed responsibility for the actions of his men and for the nation when he had declared the revolution. Perhaps he understood that there was no way to respond to the anger and pain directed at him, but it was his burden to carry. He had more trouble accepting the silence of former allies who had sacrificed for the revolution and then felt betrayed.

Rawlings story provides lessons for a new generation of activists. He embodied the hopes and uncertainties of the 1970s generation as he guided Ghana across a complex, changing terrain. Ghana’s revolution promised liberation, but its legacy is traumatic and unresolved. Proponents lament its failures while opponents regret its destructiveness. As people reflect on Rawlings’s passing, stories from the past are coming up. Some are told in public, but most circulate in smaller networks and on social media. Multiple contradictory versions of what happened in revolutionary Ghana are starting to emerge. While some participants do not want to talk about the past, others embellish their roles. Many feel they never had a chance to talk about their experiences. As stories of Ghana’s political past emerge, they tell of the hopes and dangers of struggling for radical freedom.

Rawlings was a man of passion who never stopped fighting for his people, especially the most vulnerable. Rest well.

Further Reading