Jerry John Rawlings – A Hero Or A Villain?

Yesterday marked exactly one year since the death of ex-president Jerry John Rawlings. He is a man who ushered Ghana into the Fourth Republic, dawn of sustained independence and his death came as a shock to many though some had waited for it for far too long. He was a man whose enemies were just as many as his loved ones. To know if he was a hero or a villain, it is paramount we know the man that was Jerry John Rawlings.

Jerry John Rawlings, a Ghanaian President, military commander, and politician, was born on June 22, 1947, and led the country from 1981 to 2001, as well as for a brief spell in 1979. He commanded a military regime until 1992, after which he was democratically elected President of Ghana for two years.

Rawlings came to power in Ghana as a flight lieutenant of the Ghana Air Force following a coup d’état in 1979. Prior to that, he led a failed coup attempt against the ruling military government on 15 May 1979, just five weeks before scheduled democratic elections were due to take place. After handing power over to a civilian government, he wrestled back power of the country on 31 December 1981 as the chairman of the Provisional National Defence Council (PNDC).

Rawlings resigned from the military in 1992, created the National Democratic Congress (NDC), and became the first president of the Fourth Republic. In 1996, he was re-elected for a second term. Rawlings backed his vice-president John Atta Mills as a presidential contender in the year 2000, after serving two terms in office, the maximum allowed by the Ghanaian Constitution. Rawlings was the African Union’s representative to Somalia at the time. H e died at the age of 73, in November 2020 and was given a state funeral.

Victoria Agbotui, an Anlo Ewe from Dzelukope, Keta, and James Ramsey John, a chemist from Castle Douglas in Kirkcudbrightshire, Scotland, gave birth to Jerry John Rawlings in Accra, Ghana. He went to Achimota School and a military academy in Teshie.  Nana Konadu Agyeman, whom Rawlings met in Achimota College, was his wife. They gave birth to  Zanetor Rawlings, Yaa Asantewaa Rawlings, Amina Rawlings and Kimathi Rawlings was their son. 

The late Jerry John Rawlings joined the Ghana Air Force shortly after finishing his secondary education at the Achimota College in 1967.H was posted to Takoradi in the Western Region of Ghana in 1968 to further his education and graduated in January 1969 and was immediately commissioned as a pilot officer. In April 1978, he was promoted to flight lieutenant. Rawlings saw a decline in discipline and morale in the Ghana Air Force owing to corruption in the Supreme Military Council while serving there (SMC). As his career progressed, he came into touch with the upper classes and their social norms, hardening his views on societal inequalities. As a result, the SMC was concerned about him. Following the coup in 1979, he became active with the University of Ghana’s student community, where he formed a stronger socialist perspective via reading and debate of social and political views. 

Ignatius Kutu Acheampong’s government, which had risen to power through a coup in January 1972, became a source of anger for Rawlings. Acheampong was charged with not just corruption, but also for perpetuating Ghana’s reliance on pre-colonial powers, resulting in economic deterioration and poverty.

Rawlings was a member of the Free Africa Movement, a secret group of military personnel intent on uniting Africa through a series of coups. Rawlings and six other soldiers attempted a coup against General Fred Akuffo’s administration on May 15, 1979, five weeks before civilian elections, but were unsuccessful and imprisoned by the military. Rawlings was publicly condemned to death and imprisoned in a General Court Martial, his public pronouncements about the socioeconomic inequities that drove his acts garnered him favor from the general population. Rawlings was helped to escape custody by a group of soldiers on June 4, 1979, while awaiting his execution. 

He led the group in a coup to overthrow the Akuffo Administration and Supreme Military Council, claiming that the government was beyond redemption and that fresh leadership was essential for Ghana’s progress. Rawlings soon formed and became Chairman of a 15-member Armed Forces Revolutionary Council (AFRC), which was mostly made up of junior officers. He and the AFRC reigned for 112 days, and eight military commanders, including Generals Kotei, Joy Amedume, Roger Felli, and Utuka, as well as three previous Ghanaian chiefs of state, Acheampong, Akuffo, and Akwasi Afrifa, were executed by firing squad. 

These killings were a watershed moment in Ghana’s history, as the country had previously had few instances of political violence. Rawlings then carried out a far larger “house-cleaning exercie” that resulted in the deaths and kidnappings of over 300 Ghanaians. Shortly after the coup, elections were held on time. Rawlings quietly handed over power to President Hilla Limann, whose People’s National Party (PNP) had the backing of Nkrumah’s supporters, on September 24, 1979.

Rawlings deposed President Hilla Limann in a coup d’état two years later, stating that civilian rule was weak and the country’s economy was failing. During Rawlings’ second military dictatorship, he assassinated Supreme Court justices Cecilia Koranteng-Addow, Frederick Sarkodie, and Kwadjo Agyei Agyepong, as well as military officers Major Sam Acquah and Major Dasana Nantogmah. However, unlike the 1979 executions, these individuals were kidnapped and murdered in secret, and it remains unknown who was responsible for their deaths, though Joachim Amartey Kwei and four others were convicted and hanged in 1982 for the killings of the Justices and Acquah. 

After all the Coup and killings were done and over with, Rawlings and Ghana embraced democracy and the electing of a president through ballot box and in 1992, Ghana held a general election which saw Jerry John Rawlings legitimately voted into power.

A president can only serve two terms, even if they are not consecutive, according to the 1992 constitution. Rawlings did not try to amend the constitution so that he could run for a third term in 2000. In 2001, he stepped down and was succeeded by John Agyekum Kufuor, his greatest adversary in the 1996 elections. It was the first time in Ghanaian history that power was peacefully passed from a sitting administration to an elected opposition member.

Rawlings died at Korle-Bu Teaching Hospital in Accra on November 12, 2020, a week after being treated for a “short term sickness” in Ghana. COVID-19 complications were reported as the reason of his death. 

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