June 4,1979 was a defining moment in Ghana’s chequered political history. It was the day when the word ‘Revolution’ roared throughout the length and breadth of the former British colony which was once called The Gold Coast.
On May 15, 1979, a then obscure Flight Lieutenant Jerry John Rawlings led an unsuccessful coup against the government of the then Military Head of State, General Frederick William Kwasi Akufo. The 32-year-old mixed race officer was subsequently arrested and was waiting to be court martialled and executed for the failed attempt. On June 4, some junior officers who believed in Rawlings’s cause forcefully broke into the prison and released him from detention and ferried him to the government house.
He took over power and waged a fierce anti-corruption war.
His exposure to the ills of corruption came from high school when he attended the prestigious Achimota College which was the Eton-cloned school for many of the Ghanaian elite. He noticed how some of the sons of politicians and top military officers lived opulently clearly beyond the legitimate means.
He became fascinated with aero planes at the tender age of six and expressed his desire to become a pilot which drew the ire of his mother who wanted him to become a medical doctor. At Achimota, he decided that the military was an institution which could make a great societal change especially as he witnessed the nation’s first military coup that toppled the Dr. Osaygefo Kwame Nkrumah-led government in February 24, 1966. He had been soaked into Marxism by reading many revolutionary books and was determined to donate his widow’s mite to making Ghana a better place for all.
As the Head of the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council (AFRC), he identified corruption as a societal bane and cancer that had eaten deep into the fabric of the society. He felt the people needed to learn by example and some scape goats needed to be used to serve as a deterrent to aspiring corrupt leaders at all levels. Three former Military Heads of State: Generals Afrifa, Ignatius Kutu Achaempong and Frederick William Kwasi Akuffo as well as eight corrupt politicians were summarily executed by firing squad in a move that shocked the whole world.
The executions were unpopular with many of the western leaders as they cited it as a gross violation of the fundamental human rights. Rawlings was blacklisted as a blood thirsty dictator. The then Nigerian government of General Olusegun Obasanjo bluntly refused to sell crude oil to them.
Rawlings promised that democracy would return to the country after three months and kept to his word when he handed over power to Dr. Hilla Limann who created an electoral upset by defeating the more popular Victor Owusu who had been the nation’s Attorney-General and Foreign Affairs Minister.
He returned to his military duty without any form of fanfare. Limann, obviously envious of Rawling’s ever growing popularity dismissed him from the air force for no justifiable reason. Corruption soared in his government and many Ghanaians impoverished by his policies and the ones of the military fled the nation most notably to Nigeria for a more meaningful existence.
Rawlings struck again in 1981 and hurriedly sacked the Limann-led government. He named his new regime the ‘Provisional National Defence Council’ (PNDC) and made a fiery commitment to steering Ghana to the path of unprecedented prosperity.
He attracted numerous foreign investors and created the enabling environment for businesses to thrive and prosper. His economic policies were so favourable that he was nicknamed ‘Junior Jesus’ a clear pointer to his messianic mission to rescue the country’s ailing economy. He made a clarion call for his countrymen scattered all over the world to return home and help rebuild the nation from within.
Despite his charisma and common touch, he wasn’t without his faults. In a bid to obtain loans from the Bretton Woods Institutions, he greatly devalued the Ghanaian currency – the Cedi. The devaluation so hurt the vast business interests of the local elite that they renamed him ‘Junior Judas.’ He was unfazed by the criticisms of the elite and famously made a remark that he may not understand the nuances and intricacies of economics but he certainly knows when he is hungry.
The heady days of the 1990’s was filled with the wave of democratization in Africa. Rawlings, a street smart man heeded the popular call by transforming himself from a civilian dictator to a democrat by contesting and winning the 1992 presidential elections under the banner of the National Democratic Congress (NDC), the party that he formed alongside some politicians. He won a second term in 1996 and handed over power to John Agyekum Kuffour in 2000 despite the fact that they were from different political parties.
May his gentle soul rest in peace!
Tony Ademiluyi, Lagos