Jerry Rawlings Is Dead, but He Still Looms Large in Ghanaian Politics

The former leader’s blend of anti-corruption rhetoric and strongman rule still holds great appeal for a generation disappointed by contemporary politicians.

Ghana's then-President John Dramani Mahama (L) talks with former President of Ghana Jerry Rawlings (R) at the Baba Yara stadium in Kumasi on Aug. 30, 2012.
Ghana's then-President John Dramani Mahama (L) talks with former President of Ghana Jerry Rawlings (R) at the Baba Yara stadium in Kumasi on Aug. 30, 2012.

Ask any Ghanaian to guess which political party I am likely to support and they will, without mincing words, tell you the National Democratic Congress (NDC). That assumption stems from the fact that my family comes from the Volta region of Ghana.

The founder of the NDC was Jerry John Rawlings, who ruled Ghana as a military dictator and as a democratically elected president from 1981 to 1992 and from 1993 to 2001, respectively, and who died last month in a state hospital in Accra. Rawlings’s father was Scottish and his mother was from the Volta region, which is why the party he founded still gets more than 80 percent of the votes there.

Politics in Ghana is still very ethnically divided; the voters in the Ashanti region overwhelmingly vote for presidential candidates of the New Patriotic Party (NPP), which is why people reflexively assume my political allegiance is a function of my ethnicity. (It’s not; I believe that politics should transcend ethnicity and that politicians must convince voters to back them on the basis of policy.)

Rawlings did not cause the ethnic division in Ghanaian politics, but it played to his political advantage when he grudgingly re-introduced multiparty democracy in 1992.

Rawlings had first appeared on the political scene in 1979 following a successful military coup, and as chairman of the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council, embarked on his infamous “house-cleaning.” His mishandling of economic affairs, however, led politicians to persuade him to hand over the government to a civilian administration and he acquiesced. Later banned from the barracks between 1979 and 1981, he fraternized with leftist academics at the University of Ghana and got acquainted with dependency theory—which blamed the world economy’s wealthy “core” for the exploitation and underdevelopment of the poorer “periphery”—an approach that chimed with his core beliefs.

The economy had deteriorated even further, under Hilla Limann’s civilian government, by the time of Rawlings’s “second coming” in the coup of Dec. 31, 1981. Under his watch in 1983, the economy of Ghana was in shambles, it was the worst of times: Food and fuel were scarce, and people had to queue for hours just to buy uncooked kenkey (fermented corn dough). Because of economic hardship and widespread hunger, people developed what was popularly called “Rawlings chain”—characterized by “deep gorges” and emaciated skin around the neck, exposing protruding collarbones.

Faced with such deprivation, Rawlings made a U-turn; the dependency-theory devotee entered into an agreement with Western multilateral donors. The International Monetary Fund and World Bank saved the economy and there was food and fuel again, but Ghana sacrificed a lot to the banks’ neoliberal policies. The productive arms of government, state-owned enterprises, were privatized and people had to pay for various social services; the former angered leftist academics, but the latter, interestingly, did not diminish popular support for the charismatic Rawlings, who went on to win two national elections.

After the 1992 and 1996 elections, the Rawlings effect on Ghana’s ethnically aligned voting pattern had become entrenched and is likely to remain the case for many more decades to come. (Since Rawlings left the presidency, the NDC has never presented a presidential candidate from Volta, but the party has nevertheless won more than 80 percent of the votes in the region in every election since 2000.) People in Volta, who are largely ethnically Ewe, are generally bombarded with pro-NDC messaging, just as my Akan friends, from the Ashanti region, were largely fed arguments in favor of the NPP.

Consequently, the political parties, relying on ethnic allegiances, do little to raise the political consciousness of young people and instead exploit these ethnic alignments in their quest to win elections. The two major parties in Ghana seem to be committing the mistake Frantz Fanon warned of in The Wretched of the Earth: organizing along ethnic lines.

The spirit of Ghana’s first president, Kwame Nkrumah, still broods over the nation. The man hailed as Osagyefo (Redeemer) is still remembered for his visionary leadership that placed Ghana on the path to modernity and continues to inspire generations of Ghanaian leaders after him. Former military leader Ignatius Acheampong, former President Limann, and Rawlings all sought to win popular appeal by cashing in on Nkrumah’s legacy.

But gods sometimes have feet of clay. Nkrumah’s weakness was his preference for a one-party state, and Rawlings’s was the fallout of the 1979 coup: the public flogging of market women, execution of innocent judges, and confiscation of the private property of civilians. Both were, however, honest men surrounded by greedy cabinet appointees.

These days, it’s not unusual to hear young Ghanaians refer in everyday conversations to Nkrumah and Rawlings. These two former presidents occupy a big space in our national political imagination. However, whenever their personalities are invoked or their legacies are referenced it is for different reasons: In the drama that is Ghanaian politics, Nkrumah plays the role of the visionary leader, and Rawlings is the no-nonsense leader.

If the trigger for the conversation relates to the lack of vision from the ruling class, evidenced by a government policy which appears to mirror the myopic agenda of the political party in power or a conspicuous absence of leadership, then the ghost of Nkrumah is summoned with phrases like “Ghana will not develop until we get another Kwame Nkrumah,” or “Look at what Nkrumah was able to build in a short period compared to today’s greedy politicians.”

If the conversation is about the absence of order in the country or an impudent display of indiscipline from citizens or politicians, then one is more likely to hear: “Ah, what we need in this country is someone like Rawlings,” or “This nonsense wouldn’t take place under Rawlings.” According to stories Ghanaians have been told, Rawlings was the stern disciplinarian who instilled order in Ghanaian society and swiftly punished miscreants; after all, he was a military dictator for a decade.

As Ghana approaches its next election on Dec. 7, there is a general disinterestedness in the exercise of voting among my friends—middle-class, college-educated 30-somethings. This apathy is born of disappointment with the perennial underperformance of the two major parties and a general preference for authoritarian-style leadership, in the Rawlings mode. They believe that, generally, the masses are incalcitrant and very difficult to reason with, and that a leader must force the bitter medicine of development reform down their throats because they cannot be persuaded into accepting what is good for them. They also strongly hold the view that there are selfish people in most government bureaucracies who will oppose development reforms for very parochial reasons or simply block them.

Joseph R.A. Ayee, a professor of political science at the University of Ghana, has summarized the situation in Ghana’s government bureaucracies by categorizing their members as saints (committed politicians and bureaucrats), demons (hostile and apathetic groups), and wizards (policy analysts). “Public policies and programmes have failed to achieve their objectives,” Ayee argues, “largely because the saints  are few, the demons  are many, the wizards  are inappropriate, the systems are complex and the organizations are weak.”

Under the watch of a no-nonsense leader such as Rawlings, those advocating a tough-love approach argue, demons would be swiftly rooted out. Indeed, for a developing country like Ghana, it is not unusual to expect the initial stages of development to involve stepping on the toes of some interest groups whose incentives are threatened by reforms. However, what if the reforms being pushed would have a negative impact and the elements resisting them are not saboteurs but well-meaning citizens, one could easily retort, citing the example of the IMF and World Bank structural adjustment programs which Rawlings’s NDC championed from the late 1980s into the 1990s, and whose damaging effects are still palpable today.

What Ghana needs is a developmental democracy; military dictatorships, even of the Rawlings type, did not get the country anywhere. Ayee’s demons, incalcitrant agents, and saboteurs may exist, but a political system that stokes a sense of a shared vision and common purpose and articulates properly the sacrifices and commitments that everyone—including leaders—must make stands a better chance of leading the country to prosperity.

When it came to corruption Rawlings was without blemish, and this, more than anything else, is why so many Ghanaians admire him. 

As Fanon wrote, “the party, instead of welcoming the expression of popular discontentment, instead of taking for its fundamental purpose the free flow of ideas from the people up to the government, forms a screen, and forbids such ideas.”

Despite his many flaws, it was Rawlings’s passionate desire to change the ideals of the ruling class and the population at large. When it came to corruption he was without blemish, and this, more than anything else, is why so many Ghanaians of my generation—even those who decry dictatorship—admire him.

In a video that was shared on many social media platforms by young fans of the late former president, he challenged an audience in his characteristic authoritative baritone:  “I would dare you to go and line up some of your finest policemen … some of your finest … judges, make any allegations against me.… I will be the one who will pass,” he declared. “If we can learn to be bold enough to restore the value of truth in our society then we will have justice.”

Not many present and former politicians can publicly pose this dare, and this is why Rawlings, even after his passing, will continue to have many young admirers.

Noble Kofi Nazzah is a freelance writer and Ghanaian cultural critic. He has a bachelor’s degree from the University of Ghana and master’s degrees from Webster University and the London School of Economics and Political Science. Twitter: @etornamkenny

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