His passing one year ago triggered debate about his role in the birth and development of Ghana’s Fourth Republic. But Rawlings’ legacy in Ghana’s democratic development deserves a longer view that goes back to before the Third Republic. Indeed, it merits a broader view that takes full measure of the man and his net impact on Ghanaian ethos that has left him a savior to some and traitor to others.
Jerry John Rawlings is, without doubt, the most dominant figure in Ghana’s politics since independence. For some two decades, he reigned supreme. After leading the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council (AFRC) to take power violently in 1979 in the country’s transition to the Third Republic, he retreated to the barracks, then shot his way back, albeit less violently, to take power from the democratically elected Limann government, thereby aborting the Third Republic. As the authoritarian military leader of the anything-but-provisional Provisional National Defence Council (PNDC) from 1981 to 1993, violence was back. He then took off his soldier’s uniform and dressed up as civilian president in a constitutional democratic republic until 2001. And by choice and force, he stayed in the political limelight for another two decades till death, but he will never be parted from the nation’s consciousness.
In a sense, Rawlings was lucky that his demise came at a time when Ghana’s two leading political parties, NDC and NPP, are opportunistically clinging to his long political coattails. Thus, the cynic might say, with some merit, that the pomp and pageantry the nation witnessed on January 27 was less a celebration of the “Founder of the Fourth Republic” or demonstration of national unity and more a surreal spectacle of leading figures in both the NDC and NPP competing for the prize for praise-singing of J.J. Rawlings. This competition, unfortunately, has meant J.J. has escaped to a large extent the normal Ghanaian credit-debit style of book-keeping on our major political figures and governments: pros or cons, love or hate, saint or devil, Jesus or Judas.
J for Jesus
As Jesus, J.J. was hero and savior to many-a-“common man,” the downtrodden in Ghanaian society. To them, this oburoni (“half-caste”/mulatto/biracial) man put his career as a junior officer in the Ghana Air Force and his privileged life at risk to fight the corrupt and oppressive powers that be. To millions of adoring fans at the time, Jerry was a humble man who shared his meals and cigarettes with his subordinates, the beloved leader of the AFRC interregnum who let the blood of the wicked flow freely and who peacefully handed power to the legitimate winner of the 1979 presidential elections, Dr Hilla Limann, after three months of much-needed house-cleaning.
Latter-day believers in Jerry John’s sainthood have tagged on the honorific: “Father/Founder of the Fourth Republic.”
J for Judas
As Judas, J.J. presided over the disappearance or extra-judicial killing of at least 300 Ghanaians (documented in the final report of the National Reconciliation Commission (NRC), 2002-2004). I take particular note of Mr. Rawlings’ refusal to take many opportunities given him to offer unqualified apologies to the victims of his rule and their progeny as well as to Ghanaians in general. Indeed, he often did the opposite: He either relished in or rationalized the human rights abuses that characterized his administrations, including extra-judicial executions—the euphemistically so-called “excesses of the revolution.” In contrast, the NRC in 2004 called the collective period of his rule one in which life was “nasty, brutish and short.”
Between J and J
For me, as a student and former lecturer on courses in Ghanaian politics before and after independence, I have been deeply disturbed and scandalized by revisionist narratives that give credit to Rawlings in areas where he made zero, little, or negative contribution and at the same time I am puzzled by the fact that some of his major contributions are overlooked even by his believers. My modest goal in this presentation is to help restore balance and bring some objectivity to the reckoning of J.J.’s democratic credentials.
While he kept a self-preserving silence over the praise-signing revisionism of his being the founder of the Fourth Republic, J.J. often challenged unflattering accounts, including those by sympathizers and former acolytes, such as Professors Danso-Boafo and Kwamena Ahwoi. Meanwhile, his long-rumored autobiography and authorized biographies are yet unpublished. Rawlings seems to have invested heavily in curating his own history in a self-serving manner. That was his right. But, as subjects of his deeds, our duty is to not let him have his way.
The first question we must ask is…
Did J.J. Rawlings advance the development of democracy in Ghana’s Fourth Republic?
A highly qualified yes. Yes, if you go with the notion in political choice that he was a lesser devil, that is.
We live on a continent where too many leaders have clung to power until they die naturally or are violently removed or killed, a continent on which some leaders would rather see their countries engulfed in protracted war than relinquish power peacefully. Even leaders of small and medium-sized churches as well as NGOs resist term limits. From that vantage point, we should give credit to Rawlings for allowing Ghana’s third democratic transition to take place in the early nineties and for not usurping Ghana’s first electoral turnover/power alternation in 2001.
Of course, Rawlings had reason to be concerned about his personal security and comfort at the most basic level at the time as he was confronted with domestic and external pressure to transition out of power in the late 1980s and early 1990s. He and his inner circle had every reason to be afraid of being visited by retribution at the hands of the many enemies they had created through extreme political repression and exiling as well as the destruction of the businesses of their opponents.
Rawlings and his allies might push back farther to say preparations to return the country to democratic rule commenced from the early years of the PNDC government with the establishment of the National Commission for Democracy (NCD) in 1984. But the NCD essentially served as Rawlings/PNDC’s chief instrument for deflecting internal demands for return to democratic constitutional rule. In fact and in reality, the Commission rolled out largely time-wasting and sometimes quixotic programs to identify an “authentic,” “home-grown,” Rawlings/PNDC revolution-compliant version of democracy to be implemented in Ghana. With very few exceptions, the NCD-led programs were headlined by Rawlings, PNDC affiliated figures and other personalities with known anti-multi-party and anti-liberal democracy bias.
Rawlings, his quasi-military regime and their defenders could mount a more serious claim to having made a significant start to Ghanaian democratization with the local government reform and decentralization program initiated in 1987/1988 (based on PNDC L207). The main features of the program were:
- The establishment of 110 District Assemblies, with two thirds of the members elected and one third appointed by government;
- Non-partisan district level elections; and
- District/Municipal/Metropolitan Chief Executives (Mayors) appointed by government.
With this initiative Rawlings/PNDC could claim to be building the structure of Ghanaian democracy from the ground up.
But even that initiative falls short, because the local government and decentralization program was also part of an elaborate plan to evade the pressure to credibly address nagging questions about when the tenure of this “provisional” government would come to an end. Indeed, Rawlings-PNDC used the program, particularly the appointment of 110 district chief executives and one third of the assembly membership, to strengthen its political base in the countryside. The no-party elections provided the military government an opportunity to test its popularity on the ground—in the event of a competitive national election. In short, the local government elections were something of a warm-up exercise for the PNDC, then at the crossroads of returning the country to civilian rule
At any rate, what can we say about a decentralization program that was and remains devoid of credible fiscal and political decentralization, leaving the incumbent president and his executive branch appointees breathing over the neck of district assemblies and local polities? How much room is left for the exercise of real local autonomy and initiative — after the presidential appointment of DCEs as well as a third of members of the assemblies and district assembly nearly totally dependent on central government grants?
It’s rather odd that the J.J. praise singers have not emphasized his contribution to economic stability. It is true that some of the policies and programs Rawlings inspired or initiated during his AFRC and early PNDC days damaged the Ghanaian economy. But, to his credit, he later adopted the bitter pill of the World Bank/IMF’s neoliberal economic recovery and Structural Adjustment Programs (SAPs) that brought a measure of stability to the Ghanaian economy and broke the taboo hitherto associated with economic rationalization measures, such as currency devaluation, privatization of state-owned companies, payment of user fees for basic state services, downsizing of the public service, and foreign exchange deregulation—measures that helped bring down the Busia government. Limann couldn’t even get his 1980/81 budget through a Parliament in which his PNP party had majority.
So, Rawlings did take some difficult decisions that helped usher in and stabilize the Fourth Republic.
But is Jerry John Rawlings the father of Ghana’s Fourth Republic?
I emphatically reject the claim for many reasons, including the following:
- The man did not believe in democracy. He said so himself, and the records are public. This “father” never wanted the child. The child was forced upon him, and he showed his disdain by abusing the child.
- To call Rawlings the father of the Fourth Republic is to insult the sacrifice of those who toiled, bled, suffered detention without trial; lost their jobs, businesses, limbs or lives; or went into exile in the long struggle against military dictatorship under J.J. Rawlings and for restoration of democracy in Ghana.
- We must not forget that J.J. Rawlings was the leader of the June 4, 1979 insurrection, which disrupted the transition from military to democratic constitutional rule under the Third Republic, that events and developments in that interregnum virtually foreclosed the Limann government and the Third Republic’s chances of succeeding.
- Rawlings ruptured democratic governance by, among other abominable actions,
- Executing former military heads of state (including Gen Afrifa, a key figure in one of the leading political parties contesting in the late 70s transition elections, was yanked from the campaign trail and taken to face a firing squad)
- Upending the public service by abolishing the position of Principal and Supervising Principal Secretary and undertaking a spate of dismissals of alleged Acheampong-SMC collaborators
- Striking a blow against the authority structure of the military
- Asserting violence as a factor in Ghanaian politics
- Truncating the life of a functioning democratic Limann-PNP government and replacing it with autocratic quasi-military rule
- Muzzling free expression and free media (which was not to be cured until nine years into the Fourth Republic under Kufuor-NPP);
- Subjecting suspects to torture and other forms of trial by ordeal
- Confiscating private assets without assigning cause
- Undermining the judiciary and judicial independence through intimidation and name-calling, and also by creating a parallel “Public Tribunal” system patterned on what obtained in some totalitarian states
- Holding kangaroo trials that dished out cruel and unusual forms of punishment (such as making convicted and suspected offenders carry human excreta, stripping citizens of their citizenship and banishing them from Ghana)
- Imposing a panoptic paramilitary security apparatus invested in regime security (in the Civil Defence Organization/People’s Militia, Committees for the Defence of the Revolution, Commandos) and proliferating an array of extra-legal adjudicating bodies (some of which were operated by outlaw military and police personnel functioning as ‘musclemen’ and ‘enforcers-at-large’ and running their own jails (such as ex-warrant officers Nkwantabisa and Salifu Amankwaa, and ex-police officer Jack Bebli).
- Rawlings escaped accountability by indemnifying himself and his cronies for their bad actions and he never showed good faith by apologizing.
The J.J. Rawlings-PNDC period also left behind a weak culture of human rights whereby regime interests dictate the boundaries of human rights and society is often oblivious to the implications of human rights abuses.
Furthermore, Rawlings has perpetuated a culture in which senior public servants/technocrats/securocrats feel subservient to the president, his appointees and, arguably, ruling party executives. The “YESSA MASSA syndrome” afflicting public administration in Ghana even today must be seen as the long-term effect of J.J. Rawlings and his PNDC executive appointees bullying and intimidating senior public servants. I can cite my own experience as a member of the National Redeployment Management Committee where the committee chairman typically resolved technical and policy debates and disagreements by proclaiming with menace in his eyes, “We are in a revolution.”
Perhaps, the most significant and more lasting damage J.J. Rawlings and his allies have done to Ghana’s democratic development in the Fourth Republic is the 1992 Constitution. This Constitution, or at least as it has been understood and practiced in the Fourth Republic (beginning in the first and second terms of JJ Rawlings’ inaugural presidency) unduly over-concentrates power in the presidency and executive branch of government at the expense of the legislature and judiciary and other horizontal accountability institutions (Electoral Commission, Commission for Human Rights and Administrative Justice, Auditor General, etc).
The Constitution gives the president vast appointing and patronage dispensing authority, which is typically used to perpetuate winner takes all practices (appoint party functionaries as CEOs/Chairs and members of the most important public boards, state councils, public enterprises and/or contractors for government projects) and keep the district/municipal/metropolitan assemblies and their substructures in the grip of the president.
I don’t know if anyone would consider such actions and legacy good materials for the construction of the foundation upon which a multi-party democratic system stands!
It is true that the 10-year “provisional” J.J. Rawlings junta began to concede the possibility/inevitability of returning the country to democratic rule in the early 1990s. But I contend that it was not a voluntary move. The regime was compelled to execute a democratic transition on account of external and internal anti-military rule and pro-democracy developments in the late eighties and early 1990s, but certainly not to the point of crowning J.J. Rawlings the founder/architect of democracy in Ghana’s Fourth Republic. If anything, he was dragged to it kicking and screaming.
If we call J.J. Rawlings “the hero” or “a hero” of Ghanaian democratization in the Fourth Republic, what then shall we call Professor Adu Boahen who broke the culture of silence, Kwesi Pratt, Kweku Baako, Akoto Ampaw, etc., who led the pro-democracy agitations of the 80s and suffered persecution and imprisonment?
On June 4, 1979, J.J. Rawlings ushered Ghana into a political abyss, one in which human rights and state institutions were rapidly undermined in the name of “revolution.” After a brief hiatus, J.J. Rawlings’ 31st December coup truncated the life of a two-year-old democratically elected government and replaced it with a monstrous quasi-military dictatorship that perpetuated the agenda commenced in 1979.
When domestic and external developments and factors rendered military rule untenable in the early 1990s, Rawlings and his political confederates conceded a return to democratic rule. But they did so under terms and conditions guaranteed to ensure self-succession and maximum self-preservation.
As an elected president, J.J. Rawlings struggled to comply with democratic norms and treated the opposition NPP as well as his own party, the governing NDC with utter disdain.
And as former president, he arrogated to himself the right to hector the two immediate successor presidents and governing parties; he frequently reminded Ghanaians about how much better his military regimes had been and how terrible democracy really was. J.J. Rawlings seemed to love democracy only when it went his way.
And in terms of JJ’s seemingly full embrace of democracy in the last decade of his life, I would assign it to the following largely self-serving reasons:
- His first daughter, Ezanetor Rawlings, had become an NDC MP
- His wife Nana Konadu Agyeman Rawlings had founded and was leading her own party, in addition to being allowed to take back real estate she mainly acquired during her husband’s time in office as head of state, particularly under Akufo-Addo/NPP. And
- He himself was enjoying the status of a statesman plenipotentiary extraordinaire and “consigliere” in the Akufo-Addo/NPP administration.
This presentation has focused solely on reviewing J.J. Rawlings’ contributions to the building and consolidation of democracy in Ghana’s 4th Republic. It has been done without prejudice to his overall contributions, positive or negative, to the building of the Ghanaian nation and its economic and social development.
I have sought principally to show that the late President Jerry John Rawlings was no democrat, that it is wrong, or at least a huge exaggeration, to confer on him the title of “Father”/ or “Founder” of Ghana’s 4th Republican democracy.
The writer is the Board Chair of Afrobarometer; former Executive Director of CDD-Ghana; retired professor, Department of Political Science, University of Ghana