Great People

Jerry Rawlings: A Life


Jerry Rawlings was raised in most unfavourable circumstances by a single mother who initially wanted him to become a doctor. His father, a European sojourner in Africa, refused to accept him as his son till his death. He, Jerry, had serious disciplinary problems as a young adult and did not conclude his ordinary levels education as a result. He volunteered into military training when he signed up for fight cadetship as a last resort and changed his destiny and that of an entire nation. His courage and patriotic zeal led him into mutineering, after which he received a death sentence before eventually becoming the leader of his nation at different times and in different circumstances. He ruled Ghana for the longest period of time. Besides its first President, Dr Kwame Nkrumah, no political leader has had as much of an impact on Ghana as Jerry John Rawlings.


Jerry John Rawlings is the product of a secret, six-year love affair between Scottish pharmacist James Ramsay John and his Ghanaian mistress, Madam Victoria Agbotui who is from Dzelukope, near Keta in the Volta Region, Ghana. His father was born in 1907 in Castle Douglas in South West Scotland, while his mother was born on September 9, 1919 and later became the head of the catering department at the State House in Accra, Ghana. His father, Mr. John, had apparently migrated to the then Gold Coast in 1935 with his wife, Mary, to work for the United Africa Company (UAC). Six years after Mr. John had arrived in Ghana, he started a secret relationship with Madam Agbotui, who was already a caterer at the Ghanaian State House. The relationship lasted for six years till 1947 when Rawlings was born on June 22 in Accra. Unfortunately, Mr. John refused to acknowledge Rawlings as his son – right up until his death in 1982 at the age of 75, for fear of rocking his marriage to Mary, who died in 1998. In order to preserve the Scottish heritage of her son, Madam Agbotui named him after his father as Jeremiah Rawlings John. But the name was later changed to Jerry John Rawlings following a clerical error when the young Rawlings signed up at the Royal Air Force (RAF) for advanced flight training.

Education and Training

Jerry Rawlings’s mother was a hard worker who projected for her son the career of a medical doctor. She enrolled him first at the St. Joseph’s Catholic Primary School, Adabraka, Accra, and later at the prestigious Achimota School. While at the Achimota School, he was a member of the cadet corps and the Red Cross. He was an ardent cricketer and a member of the Achimota School Choir which performed for President Nkrumah at the Flag Staff House, Accra. Unfortunately, however, Rawlings’ disciplinary problems prevented him from completing his General Certificate of Education Ordinary Level. In fact, he admitted that his mother’s strictness was part of what made him a rebellious kid. Secondary school friends remember him as outspoken and rebellious. Kojo Boakye-Djan, a retired army major and co-conspirator in the 1979 military coup recalled how the Catholic Rawlings was the only person who dared to associate with him in school back in 1963 after he (Boakye-Djan) had told the authorities he believed in traditional ancestral worship.

Rawlings was enlisted as a Flight Cadet in the Ghana Air Force in August 1967, and was selected for officer cadet training at the Ghana Military Academy and Training School, Teshie, in Accra. In March 1968, he was posted to Takoradi in Ghana’s Western Region to continue his studies. He graduated in January 1969, and was commissioned a Pilot Officer, winning the coveted ‘Speed Bird Trophy’ as the best cadet in flying and airmanship. For his advanced flight lessons, he was sent to the RAF for training in the early 70s. He earned the rank of Flight Lieutenant (Flt. Lt.) in April 1978. During his time in training, he still desired to trace his roots and to meet his father. Mr. John and his wife Mary had moved back to Scotland when he was 13, and settled down at Dalbeattie. Rawlings therefore took a leave of absence from the RAF to track down his father, whom he had learnt was working in a chemist’s shop in Dalbeattie. He eventually located the place but when he asked an old man behind the desk if he knew his father (Mr. John), the old man replied that Mr. John had moved away a long time before. Jerry’s suspicion however grew on the trip back to London that he had actually been speaking with his father in the store. Today, Rawlings still has distant relatives in Scotland even as his relatives there eventually learnt of the  family secret that Mr. James Ramsay John had kept from them. Rawlings did not complete any tertiary education beside Achimota Secondary School where he did not even acquire the G.C.E ‘O’ Level and had only an Air Force graduate diploma.

During his service with the Ghanaian Air Force, he perceived a deterioration of discipline and morale, reflecting the corruption of the Supreme Military Council (SMC) at that time. As promotion brought him into contact with the privileged classes and their social values, his view of the injustices in society hardened. He was thus regarded with some unease by the SMC. He read widely and discussed social and political ideas with a growing circle of like-minded friends and colleagues. He was strongly influenced by these intellectual activities regarding what he thought should become the state of affairs in the country.

Military Coup and Leadership

On May 15, 1979, Rawlings enlisted junior officers of the Ghanaian Armed Forces in a mutiny against the Head of State, General Fred Akuffo. On May 28, 1979, however, he appeared together with six others who were arrested earlier before a General Court Martial in Accra, where the charges were read to them. They all faced the maximum death sentence. There was strong public reaction, especially after his statement had been read in court, explaining the social injustices that had prompted him to act. The ranks of the Armed Forces, in particular, expressed deep sympathy with his stated aims. In June 1979, a former secondary school mate, Mr Boakye-Djan led troops to free him from behind bars. That jail-break and subsequently successful coup saw Jerry Rawlings and his associates seize power. This happened when he was scheduled for another court appearance. He was sprung from custody instead and with the support of both the military and civilians, he led a bloody coup that ousted General Fred Akuffo and the Supreme Military Council from office.

June 4, 1979 saw the establishment of the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council (AFRC), mostly a pack of stoned and brutal idealists with Jerry Rawlings as Chairman. The Ghanaian masses, desperate for change, hailed him as Hero, Lord, Saviour, Junior Jesus. Thus empowered, he had eight generals executed and oversaw a chaotic though popular three-month rule before handing over to President Limann who won the hastily arranged general elections.

The eight executed generals served as one of Rawlings’s first acts in power, since he had never hidden his intention about the former military dictators he labelled as corrupt. The list included Fred Akuffo, who was the head of state, Ignatius Kutu Acheamphong, and Akwasi Afrifa, among others. The AFRC, under the chairmanship of Rawlings, carried out a much wider ‘house-cleaning exercise’ aimed at purging the armed forces and society at large of corruption and graft, as well as restoring a sense of moral responsibility and accountability in public life. This ‘house-cleaning exercise’ came with suspicious disappearances of many people who were never seen again. Meanwhile, following a programme already set in motion before the June 4 overthrow of Akuffo’s government, the ruling junta organized free general elections. On 24 September 1979, the AFRC handed over power to a civilian government led by the People’s National Party (PNP) under President Hilla Limann.

Two-and-a-half years later, Rawlings was back, this time for the long haul. He rode in on the back of the people’s impatience with the Limann administration’s inability to provide a quick fix for their economic and social woes. He called his return a people’s revolution. Limann’s administration was thus cut short on 31 December 1981, when Rawlings deposed him in another coup. A Provisional National Defence Council (PNDC), composed of both civilian and military members, was established with Rawlings as Chairman.

In his second tenure in power, Rawlings’ policies became more centrist, and he began to advocate free-market reforms. He established the PNDC at the Castle, the seat of government in Accra, and people’s defence committees at grassroots level, designed theoretically to ‘give power to the people.’ The thrust of the PNDC’s agenda was socialist; his advisers were uncompromisingly leftist.

But Rawlings himself was never particularly keen on ideology. ‘Don’t ask me what my ideology or economic programme is,’ he once told a group of journalists. ‘I don’t know any law and I don’t understand economics, but I know it when my stomach is empty.’

Jerry Rawlings as head of state added a common touch to leadership. He would smoke half a cigarette and store the remainder behind his ear to light up later in the manner of a poor workman for whom a full stick was a luxury. His skill was to work with the masses; to provide leadership trimmed of pompous political embroidery; to talk the people’s talk and walk their walk. He left the structural adjustments and economic re-wiring to intellectuals.

Within three years, however, the din was dying down and the euphoria waning. After the fall of the Soviet Union in 1984, Rawlings turned right to western donors, including the IMF and World Bank. Hardened left-wing comrades accused him of ‘betraying the revolution.’ There were coup attempts and a parting of the ways. Coup plotters were executed and opponents of the new westerly direction were jailed or fled into exile. Some of his supporters during his first coup became estranged during the PNDC days which were described as a ‘period of sheer terror and repression.’ A popular publisher, Mr Baako, was jailed for nearly two years without trial for opposing the PNDC. He claimed to know scores of people who were led out of cells at night  in those times and  nothing was heard of them ever since. In 1982, Supreme Court Justices, Kwadjo Agyei Agyepong, Frederick Sarkodie, and Cecilia Koranteng Addo, as well as a military officer, Major Sam Acquah, were abducted and killed gruesomely at a military range in circumstances that have led to accusations of complicity being levelled at Rawlings and his wife. However, an official enquiry at the time exonerated them, but there were growing calls from families of the victims for fresh investigations.

Despite his questionable human rights record, Rawlings nevertheless became a darling of the Western donors who poured at least $5b into the Ghanaian economy after the regime signed on to economic reforms. Subsequently, a lot of basic social facilities were restored and commerce increased. There were modest new foreign investments as scores of state enterprises were privatised. Several technocrats were also  appointed to important government positions to aid the national recovery process.

Though the economy of Ghana was still not performing as well as it had a decade earlier, coupled with the ethnic unrest that was on the rise, the basic needs of the citizens were being met, many of them by domestic products, and the economy showed steady improvement with guidance from the International Monetary Fund. Rawlings’s reputation on foreign policy received a boost when he acted as a key figure in a mediated peace settlement between factions in neighbouring Liberia, which at the time was burdened by years of civil war.

Jerry Rawlings

A Democratic President

As the 1990s dawned and progressed, citizens began to demand for a more democratic form of government. The internal pressures led by a group identified with the Danquah-Busia tradition coupled with external pressures from Ghana’s development partners forced the PNDC dictatorship to accept constitutional rule. Rawlings’ response was the formation of a National Commission for Democracy (NCD), empowered to hold regional debates and formulate some suggestions for a transition to multi-party democracy. Although opposition groups complained that the NCD was too closely associated with the PNDC, the commission continued its work through 1991. In March of that year, it released a report recommending the election of an executive president, the establishment of a national assembly, and the creation of the position of prime minister. The PNDC accepted the report, and the following year Rawlings legalized political parties – with the provision that none could use names that had been used before. A timetable was also set for presidential elections.

On several platforms, Mr. Jerry Rawlings professed his dislike for multiparty democracy, saying that it was alien to the Ghanaian people. As elections drew near, he switched from being a military dictator, retired from the military, and offered himself as the candidate for the National Democratic Congress (NDC), the successor party to the PNDC. He retired from the Ghanaian Armed Forces on September 14, 1992. Although his opponents were given access to television and newspaper coverage – and limits to the freedom of the press had been lifted – no single candidate could match the popularity of the sitting head of state. Election returns on November 3, 1992, revealed that Rawlings had won 58.3 percent of the vote, for a landslide victory. Although international observers judged the elections largely free and fair, the opposition New Patriotic Party (NPP) alleged that it was a stolen victory fraught with widespread abuses. Leaders encouraged their followers to boycott subsequent parliamentary elections, with the result being that the NDC candidates won 189 of 200 seats in the new parliament.

On January 7, 1993, at age 45, Rawlings was sworn in as the first president of the fourth republic of Ghana. He was therefore accorded a four-year term backed by an elected assembly of supporters for his platform. Answering questions of polling place irregularities, he promised to initiate a new voter registration programme to be completed in time for elections in 1996. He repeated the feat four years later, though the opposition, led by the New Patriotic Party (NPP), said both elections were stolen. His victories were decried as fraud-laden by opponents, in the book Stolen Verdict published by the opposition, which chronicles instances of vote rigging and acts of intimidation and fear.

During the eight years of Rawlings as President of Ghana, he managed an uncanny diplomatic balance act between coddling Nigerian dictator Sani Abacha and speaking on behalf of Libyan dictator Muamar Gaddafi on the one hand, and receiving US President Bill Clinton and Queen Elizabeth of England on the other. Some of his other achievements include mediating and ensuring political and economic stability in a region rife with conflicts, including wars in Liberia, Côte d’Ivoire, Togo, Guinea Bissau and Sierra Leone. He was Chairman of the Economic Community of West African States between 1994 and 1996.

On the home front, he created 110 districts through non-partisan district level elections. Decisions on education, infrastructure, and healthcare were all decentralized and policy-making powers were delegated to the districts. He also established Public Tribunals, which were criticized for their ‘disregard of normal juridical procedures.’ Policies and programmes on health, trade and industry, transport, tourism, education, and energy, that were implemented under the PNDC were continued, as new ones were formulated. Projects to further expand access of potable water to rural communities were implemented – the national water supply capacity was expanded through projects such as ‘The Obuasi Supply Project’, and the ‘Weija Treatment Plant’. In agriculture, policies were initiated (1994-2000) that resulted in the recognition of Ghana’s Food Production of 148% for 1995-1997 as ‘the third highest achievement in the record after Jordan (157%) and China (156%) in the World Bank’s 1999-2000 Development Report.’ Close associates say he was gifted not only with a sixth sense, but also an extra pair of nostrils, for survival. Yet, opinions continued to differ about the impact of Rawlings’s administration on the nation with some hailing him as saviour, while others derided him for ‘turning Ghana into a colony.’

After two terms in office, and barred by the constitution from standing in any election, Rawlings anointed his vice-president, John Atta-Mills, as his choice to replace him as President. Ghanaians rejected his choice in the 2000 election by voting for the opposition NPP’s candidate, John Kufuor. Kufuor defeated Atta-Mills in the 2000 vote and repeated the feat in 2004.

Rawlings holds the record of ruling Ghana for the longest number of years – just over 19 years. He also has the record of the worst human rights abuses in Ghana’s history during his regime. Snippets of the gross human rights abuses and the tortures that occurred during the period were highlighted during a National Reconciliation exercise that was conducted after he left office. He appeared before the country’s National Reconciliation Commission, which was set up in 2002 to investigate human rights’ abuses committed under five military regimes, including his own. He was summoned to answer questions about the murders in 1982 of three supreme court judges and a retired military officer and in relation to extra-judicial military killings in 1984. Earlier hearings by witnesses had linked him to the deaths. During his brief voluntary appearance, which lasted 30 minutes and was broadcast live on national radio and television, the former president was asked about recordings allegedly including the interrogation of people involved in the killings. He told the commission that there could have been extra-judicial killings while he was in office, but that he did not witness any.

Ghana’s National Reconciliation Commission heard more than a thousand testimonies during its seating. Allegations of murder, torture and other human rights’ abuses dogged the Rawlings regime in its early years in power. Several thousands of his supporters, wearing t-shirts bearing the name of his National Democratic Congress (NDC), thronged outside the court room chanting ‘JJ’, for Jerry John, the initials that make up his popular nickname. Riot police were on standby, but Rawlings’s appearance passed without incident. ‘I wish to thank you sincerely for your support,’ he told the crowd as he left the court room. Taking a swipe at his long-time political adversary, he said,  ‘As for the Kufuor government, they are so corrupt that we will deal with them at the appropriate time.’ Certainly, however, Rawlings’s day had come and gone, and his government faced allegations of corruption in its closing years.

The NDC has accused President Kufuor’s New Patriotic Party (NPP) government of setting up the National Reconciliation Commission to conduct a political witch hunt of its opponents. Kufuor has countered this argument saying that those who lost family members and other loved ones, or who suffered under former military regimes, must be heard and have their grievances addressed. The only motive driving the commission, concludes Kufuor, is to get at the truth, heal past wounds and strive for lasting reconciliation among all Ghanaians.

Recognitions and More Responsibility

Jerry Rawlings was a joint recipient of the 1993 World Hunger Award. He contributed immensely to the establishment of the University for Development Studies in 1993 when he used his US$50,000 Hunger Project cash prize as seed money to sponsor the establishment of the state-owned university, the first of its kind in the three Northern Regions. He was as a result, honoured in October 2013 with an honorary Doctor of Letters by the university. He holds an honorary Doctor of Law degree from the City University of New York, and an honorary doctorate degree for Diplomacy and Development from Lincoln University. In October 2013, he was named ‘Global Champion for People’s Freedom’ by the Mkiva Humanitarian Foundation. He gave lectures on governance and African development at universities and other fora in various parts of the world, and was occupied with the responsibility of Special Envoy of the African Union to the crisis-ridden Somalia since 2010.

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Rawlings got married to Nana Konadu Agyeman in January 1977 in Ridge Church. On June 1, 1978, they had their first child, Zanetor, which means ‘Let the night stop’ in his Ewe mother-tongue. The name symbolized, to Rawlings, a call to end the current economic and social malaise that Ghana was undergoing. They also gave birth to two other girls (Yaa Asantewaa and Amina Rawlings) and a boy (Kimathi Rawlings). Rawlings, who was Catholic by faith, is credited with the saying, ‘I don’t fear God, I love him.’

By: The Journal Team

Photo Credit: Modern Ghana, Edward A. Ulzen Memorial foundation,Ab-tc, Vanguard

Categories: Great People

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