By Tom Kamara
December 7, 2000
After about two decades of dominance on the Ghanaian political scene, charismatic Flight Lieutenant Jerry Johns Rawlings will follow few African leaders who have bowed in peace instead of to the gun. And despite JJ's many violent and gray political spots, his place in Ghanaian history will certainly be near that of the legendary Osagyefo Dr. Kwame Nkrumah.
There are many who would want Rawlings' head, but for their own reasons and more. This in itself is expected, realizing the turbulent nature of African politics and the staunchly ethnic oriented nature of Ghana's political landscape. But when all is settled and the new aspiring "Angels" get their turn in the ever-coveted presidency, many will see the Flight Lieutenant as a man of redeeming values, an endangered species in Africa's terrifying political environment.
As a young military officer, JJ saw the squalor, inefficiency and opportunism that befell his country after the fall of Nkrumah. Instability, repeated coup d'etats by corrupt Army officers proliferated. Those who tied Ghana's problems, whatever they were, to Nkrumah's visionary politics failed to replace him. Promised economic progress and good governance were buried in naiveté and divisive tribalism. An exodus of Ghanaians ensued due to the harsh economic regimes at home.
Once in power through the barrel of the gun, the only means possible then if one did not belong to Ali Baba's circle of thieves, JJ's was to follow the footpaths of well-meaning Africans who genuinely believed that socialist command economy would give their people bread and tackle poverty. He upped the revolutionary rhetoric "of the people" and found believing and honest disciples. Soon, like others before him such as the irreplaceable Mwalimu Julius K. Nyerere, he found himself strangled. Markets dried up. Basic items such as soap and toothpaste became affordable luxuries only to the lucky and the well connected who periodically traveled out of the country. Smugglers and black marketers celebrated their victory. The US dollar note was like high-grade cocaine on the streets of New York or London. Mass disenchantment followed. This was the 1970s and 80s when honest African leaders who did not dance to the drums sounding from Washington, Paris or London were condemned as heretics deserving death. Rogues and murderers who jumped the floor were elevated to sainthood and this has sent such dancers---Liberia, Sierra Leone, Zaire, etc., ---into Hell.
Rawlings' solutions to Ghana's economic and therefore political problems were sincere, but brutal and idealistic. With bulldozers, he is reported to have personally cleared Accra's shanty slums accommodating the "economic saboteurs," hoping they would vanish. They did not. They simply multiplied to meet growing demands.
His allies in this self-declared and lonely jihad for misunderstood progress were young students, ascetic, and idealistic professionals, adamant and sincere visionaries who saw Western economic and political models as Ghana's gallows. Like under Nkrumah, Rawlings' Ghana during those early years was a source of inspiration for helpless visionaries from other African countries, among them several cadres of South Africa's African National Congress. Ghana's revolutionaries, decent and committed individuals, among the finest on the Continent, had seen the effects of Western economic medicine on crippled and condemned states like Liberia, Zaire, Sierra Leone, etc. For them, Ghana would heed the warning by avoiding this crucible. With Rawlings as their idolized Chief of their General Staff, they saw better days ahead. They were wrong.
Their people were not concerned about "revolutionary justice". They cared less for ideas. They didn't want to be bothered with the illusive concept of "African brotherhood" or the misused slogan of "Pan Africanism." Like all peoples, they wanted bread. JJ read the signals and switched gear to the chagrin of many of his followers and comrades.
But he had to. He embraced Western economic medicine, applying it with all his charisma and vigor. Soon, this once firebrand "people's revolutionary" would be paraded on the world stage as a loyal and resourceful disciple of the Market, one of the few shinning examples of a dying patient brought to life through a dose of Western economic medicine even if others were crying about hyper-inflations and the increasingly falling Cedis. Ghana became a model for others to follow. But not all had a Rawlings. Certainly, Rawlings copycats mushroomed in West Africa---Samuel Doe, now Gambia's Jammeh the simpleton, Sierra Leone's confused baby boy Strasser, etc.
However, Rawlings could not be duplicated. The character of an individual cannot be borrowed. He would be one of the few "lucky" leaders embraced by that high priest of Western economics, the President of the United States (Bill Clinton). This was a dramatic transformation of a man who once looked at parrots like Libya that offer only rhetoric without the accompanying imagined benefits, leaving countries with the stigmas of primitivism. .
Accra today is the opposite of itself in the 70s and 80s. New roads, new infrastructure abound. Self-confidence is back and the difficult road to democratization is taken. The US dollar is no more cocaine, just another currency despite its remaining prowess. Farmers and rural dwellers have regained their dignity with ongoing electrification and other opportunities. Yes, there is high-level corruption, plenty of it, but nothing on the scale of Nigeria and other countries. Moreover, corruption is just the side effect of Western economic medicine.
On the regional political scene, Rawlings role was at times ambivalent. As a key participant in the West African peacekeeping force ECOMOG, many Liberians saw him as one individual who would not compromise justice. Thus when he said the Liberian cancer needed a "straight jacket", they misinterpreted him to mean firmly confronting the terror Charles Taylor and other warlords were waging. It came to pass that he meant the opposite. "Straight Jacket" meant capitulating to the biggest gun. But here again, there were few political leaders available in Liberia worthy of support and capable of challenging the mass murderers and thieves promising salvation. Moreover, there are indications that JJ simply followed the dictates of "Big Brother" Sani Abacha. Nevertheless, JJ remains one of the few leaders who see men like Sierra Leone's Foday Sankoh as pariahs deserving contempt, not national leadership, and openly saying so. Since Charles Taylor's election, the Liberian has avoided Accra, where he lived and was jailed for illegally using Ghana as staging post for his operations that have now reduced the region into one mass refugee camp. Now, there are credible reports that he is firmly backing the anti-Rawlings opposition, men and women who supplied some of his campaign materials and are now well-placed in his club of diamond smugglers and thieves. The anomaly came in Rawlings's Liberia ties when he stood with Taylor the thieving warlord in Monrovia as the Liberian announced, "We are the new generation of African leaders." It was an unfortunate comparison, for JJ is far from a thief, too decent to amputate children for diamonds, and far too modest for medical treatment in Paris while he begs for aid, things the President of the Republic of Liberia, ironically Africa's oldest, finds quite normal.
When JJ is gone in a few weeks time, his image will linger. His is an indelible one. No one, not even his sworn opponents, can deny him that.