Jerry Rawlings, Ghanaian strong man who came to power in a coup but introduced democracy – obituary
Jerry Rawlings, who has died, reportedly of Covid-19, aged 73, was a flamboyant air force flight-lieutenant who seized power in Ghana in a bloody coup in 1979 and, after a brief flirtation with democracy, mounted another coup at the end of 1981 – after which he held on for two decades, initially as a dictator, later as elected president, before eventually stepping down voluntarily in 2001.
Ghana was, in the mid-to-late 1970s, in a desperate state. Inflation was out of control and the country’s black market was becoming more important than its official economy. Rawlings subscribed to the popular view that the country’s plight was caused, not so much by mismanagement, but by corruption, and decided to take action.
His first coup attempt, in May 1979, ended in failure when he and six other junior officers were arrested, charged with mutiny, sentenced to death and jailed. On June 4, however, Rawlings was sprung from jail by a group of soldiers and immediately made his way to a local radio station where he announced he was forming an Armed Forces Revolutionary Council (AFRC) to oust the government of president General Frederick Akuffo and to hold power until democratic elections could be held.
From there, Rawlings and his supporters went directly to the president’s palace and assumed control. One of the new leader’s first actions was a symbolic one: he blew up the site of the central black market in Accra.
Rawlings and the AFRC ruled for 112 days and oversaw the execution by firing squad of eight military officers as well as three former heads of state: Akwasi Afrifa, Ignatius Kutu Acheampong, and Akuffo, as mobs in Accra bayed “Let the blood flow”. This was followed later by a wider “house-cleaning exercise” involving the killings and abduction of more than 300 Ghanaians.
In a later interview with the Daily Telegraph, Rawlings suggested that Ghanaians had become so angry after years of corrupt and inept rule that without a few killings the country would have exploded: “When you keep people in a state of subjugation and humiliation for so long, when they blow up they want your blood. That is the point to which my country was driven.”
Elections were held as promised and in September, after handing over power to a civilian politician, Dr Hilla Limann, Rawlings returned to his military duties.
But with the country crippled by a huge foreign debt and an annual inflation rate of more than 140 per cent, public discontent began to spill over into unrest and Rawlings reemerged into the political spotlight. As a result Limann’s government forced him to resign his commission and, fearing that he was plotting another coup (as indeed he was), kept him under close surveillance.
The coup, bloodless this time, came on the last day of 1981, and this time there was no talk of democracy. Rawlings abolished the constitution, dissolved parliament, declared opposition parties illegal, and installed himself as president.
Initially, he displayed leftist leanings part-inspired by a close relationship with Colonel Gaddafi, the Libyan leader, and his first years in power were tarnished by violence and intimidation as old scores were settled.
By 1983, however, Ghana was still in the economic doldrums, close to bankruptcy, and was struggling with additional problems of drought and criticism from human-rights groups.
As a result Rawlings executed a spectacular U-turn which saw him turn his back on Marxism, embrace the philosophy of free markets and implement a programme of reform which saw much of the state-controlled economy transferred to the private sector.
As harsh austerity measures began to bite Rawlings faced moves to depose him, and had to put down coups attempts each year between 1983 and 1987. His government jailed opposition leaders and at least one person convicted of plotting a coup was executed, bringing condemnation from human rights organisations.
But his reforms won Ghana substantial financial support from the West and by the end of the 1980s the country was being held up by the World Bank and the IMF as a shining example to the rest of Africa. In an eight-year period Ghana’s economy grew by an annual average of 5 per cent and gradually stability and security returned.
Charismatic and very handsome in his younger days, Rawlings had a rhetorical elan and an instinctive understanding of the popular will which, with economic success, won him huge public support. It was said that comparisons with the Messiah were not uncommon.
Having instituted a constitutional assembly to draft a new constitution, he lifted the ban on party politics in 1992 and, later that year, staged a presidential election, judged “free and fair” by international observers, from which he emerged the winner with 58 per cent of the poplar vote . Four years later he won a second term.
When Bill Clinton toured Africa as US president in 1999 to hail an “African renaissance”, he chose Accra as his first port of call, and Ghana as one of three countries, along with South Africa and Uganda, that pointed to a brighter future for the continent.
Barred by the constitution from a third term as elected president, Rawlings stepped down from the presidency in 2001 and was succeed by the opposition leader John Agyekum Kufuor, who had defeated Rawlings’s vice-president John Atta Mills in the presidential elections.
It was Ghana’s first peaceful and democratic change of government since the former colony of the Gold Coast won independence from Britain in 1957. Today, Ghana is considered one of Africa’s most stable democracies.
Jerry Rawlings was born Jerry Rawlings John in the Ghanaian capital Accra on June 22 1947 (the Ghanaian Air Force later switched his surname and middle name in an administrative error which stuck).
His father, James Ramsay John, was a Scottish pharmacist who had moved in the 1930s to the Gold Coast where he became a pillar of the expatriate community. He was married and Jerry was the result of a six-year clandestine relationship with Victoria Atbotui, a local woman of the Ewe tribe. John refused to acknowledge their son, his only child, right up until his death in 1982.
Jerry was educated at St Joseph’s Catholic Primary School ( he could recite his Latin catechism into old age) and Achimota Secondary School in Accra, where he excelled as a polo player. In 1967, at the age of 20, he joined the Ghanaian Air Force as a flying cadet. He was quickly selected for officer-cadet training at the Military Academy in Teshie. Two years later, he was awarded the trophy for the best student in flying and airmanship. He was commissioned as a Pilot Officer in 1969, and promoted to Flight-Lieutenant in 1978.
Rawlings remained an influential figure in Ghanaian politics after stepping down and took a number of international diplomatic posts, including as the African Union’s representative in Somalia.
Throughout his years in power, Rawlings cultivated the image of being not only a man of the people, but also a family man. In 1977 he married Nana Konadu Agyeman, with whom he had three daughters and a son.
Jerry Rawlings, born June 22 1947, died November 12 2020