Rawlings, Jerry 1947–
Jerry Rawlings 1947–
President of Ghana
The enigmatic and controversial Jerry Rawlings has been the head of state in Ghana continuously since 1981. Rawlings, who took power during military coups in 1979 and 1981, more recently won Ghana’s first multi-party presidential election in 11 years by a sizable margin. Although opposition leaders characterize Rawlings as little more than a despot who has exerted every effort to curb democracy and freedom of speech in Ghana, his supporters counter that during his tenure as chief executive, Ghana’s economy has improved substantially, and local efforts to feed and educate the people have reversed trends toward poverty and insolvency. Africa Report contributor Richard Joseph explained: “Unlike many military rulers in Africa, who can only hope to govern through the barrel of a gun, Jerry Rawlings has acquired a broad support base among diverse sections of the population.”
Located on the Gulf of Guinea in West Africa, Ghana is a tropical country with significant mineral resources and enough fertile farmlands to produce crops for consumption and export. Ghana’s principal money-making exports are gold, industrial diamonds, and cocoa. Its capital city, Accra, holds more than one million people. The nation was one of the first in Africa to declare independence from colonial rule, becoming an independent principality on March 6,1957. Since then Ghana has been ruled by a series of civilian and military regimes, with most power transitions occurring during coups.
One such coup brought Rawlings to power, and even though he has since acceded to calls for multiparty democracy, he remains in control. Rawlings told Africa Report: “I would say that Ghana is going through an exciting process of evolving democratization, which will enable us to say to other nations: ‘This is ours, an organic consequence of our culture and history.’ Perhaps this will be the difference between ours and others.”
Rawlings was born in Accra on June 22, 1947. Little is known about his family background except that it was unusual—his mother was a Ghanian of the Ewe ethnic group, his father was from Scotland. This heritage accounts for both Rawlings’s European facial features and his immense popularity with the Ewe people in Ghana. He was educated at the Achimota School, where he earned the equivalent of a high school diploma in 1966. After that he enrolled at the Ghana Military Academy at Teshie.
By virtue of his exceptional abilities and his engaging personality,
Full name, Jerry John Rawlings; born June 22, 1947, in Accra, Ghana; son of Madam Victoria Abbotoi; married, wife’s name Nana Konado Agyeman; children: two daughters. Education: Attended Achimota School and Ghana Military Academy at Teshie.
Pilot Officer in Ghanian Army, 1969–78, flight lieutenant, 1978–79; leader of military coup which overthrew a government of the Supreme Military Council, June, 1979; leader of military coup which overthrew government of Dr. Hilla Liman, December 31, 1981; head of state and founder and chairman of Provisional National Defense Council (PNDC), 1982—; elected president of Ghana in multi-party election, 1992.
Selected awards: Africa Prize for the Sustainable End of Hunger, awarded by the Hunger Project, 1993.
Addresses: Office —Office of the Head of State, The Castle, Accra, Ghana.
Rawlings was chosen for flight training with Ghana’s air force. He took his cadet training in Takoradi, beginning in 1967, and two years later was commissioned as a pilot officer. He won his country’s “Speed Bird Trophy” as the best cadet in flying and airmanship in 1969.
All of these accomplishments came during a period of relative prosperity in Ghana. As the 1970s progressed, however, Rawlings and other young military officers became distressed by the perceived corruption of government officials and by drastic declines in the Ghanian economy. When the ruling regime legalized political parties early in 1979, the young, recently-promoted Flight Lieutenant Rawlings emerged as a spokesman for a new populism that was sweeping the nation at the time. He quickly earned a wide following among the people—especially the poor—and the government equally quickly found reason to throw him into prison. Accused of leading a mutiny among junior officers, Rawlings went to jail in May of 1979. At his court hearing he denounced the ruling government, headed by Frederick Akuffo, as corrupt and elitist.
Rawlings did not languish in prison for long. His confederates among the junior officers secured his release on June 4, and they immediately set about taking over power. Rawlings used a radio station to announce that he was forming an Armed Forces Revolutionary Council to oust Akuffo, and that this new council would hold power only until elections could return the country to civilian rule. Amidst much jubilation in the general population, Rawlings and his companions hastened to the presidential residence and assumed the leadership of Ghana.
The 1979 coup was not bloodless by any means. A hasty military tribunal found three leaders from the previous regime guilty of corruption, and they were all executed. On the other hand, Rawlings kept his promise to turn power over to a civilian government. Elections were held in September of 1979, and Dr. Hilla Limann was voted into the presidency. Rawlings returned to the military and his duties as a flight lieutenant.
Tensions soon developed between the Limann administration and Rawlings. As the Ghanian economy continued deteriorating, Rawlings put pressure on the government, declaring himself a guardian of the “revolution” he had initiated in June of 1979. In response, the Limann administration forced Rawlings to resign his military commission and kept the charismatic leader under close surveillance, even detaining Rawlings at one point on the grounds that he was planning another coup.
Convinced that the new civilian rulers would not be able to reverse Ghana’s declining standard of living, Rawlings initiated another coup d’etat on December 31, 1981. This time he abolished the constitution, dissolved the parliament, and declared opposition parties illegal. He founded and led a Provisional National Defence Council (PNDC) that would serve as the country’s only political party for an indeterminate period.
The new head of state had retained his populist philosophy. His vision of the PNDC was not necessarily a military dictatorship, but rather a stable confederation of civilians and soldiers who could help to restore prosperity before once again promoting multi-party democracy. “Rawlings proclaimed that Ghanians must carry out a revolution of just rule for the common man and self-reliant development,” Jon Kraus stated in Current History. “But Rawlings’s populist sentiment and his formation of a civilmilitary Provisional National Defence Council and government elicited less support than did his three months of revolutionary ‘housecleaning’ in mid-1979, when the violence of Rawlings’s first coup made complete the disgust of Ghanians for military rule. However, there was broad popular support for Jerry Rawlings himself, a dynamic, emotional man in his early thirties who was widely regarded as sincere and honest.”
Rawlings did his best to reverse staggering inflation and drastic declines in public school enrollment. When support was not forthcoming from the Soviet Union and its satellite states, he tempered his leftist leanings and solicited aid from the West. Many of the austerity measures he initiated proved unpopular, and the PNDC found itself on the defense constantly from coup attempts and domestic unrest. This preoccupation with security led to the detention of political dissidents and the execution of more than one person convicted of conspiring to overthrow the government. Ghanian citizens outside the country brought the PNDC’s tactics to the attention of Amnesty International, a human rights group, which in turn publicized the plight of political prisoners in Ghana.
Although plots or actual invasions against his government occurred every year between 1983 and 1987, Rawlings managed to hold onto power and implement the policies he thought best for his nation. While he continued to head a one-party state, he did provide for district assembly elections in 1988, allowing regional government bodies to help people solve problems on a grass-roots level. While some observers hailed this step as the first in a trend toward multi-party politics, others complained that all the assembly candidates were subsidized by—and therefore sympathetic to—the PNDC.
In 1991 Rawlings explained his political philosophy to Africa Report. Emphasizing that the PNDC was a provisional government force that would indeed one day be supplanted, he said: “A responsible provisional government should lead our nation into the future bearing in mind our past and present experiences and the prospects they provide for the future. When this is done, we can hope to develop a new order whose contents respond to the new aspirations of Ghanians…. Our action program [is] designed for the attainment of a home-grown democratic system considered relevant and appropriate for our circumstances.”
Citizens began demanding a more democratic form of government as the 1990s progressed. Rawlings answered this demand by forming 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 the NCD released a report recommending the election of an executive president, the establishment of a national assembly, and the creation of a prime minister post. The PNDC accepted the report, and the following year Rawlings legalized political parties—with the provision that none could use titles that had been used before—and set a timetable for presidential elections.
When these presidential elections were held in 1992, Rawlings stood as the candidate for the National Defence Council, the successor party to the PNDC. 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 president. Election returns on November 3, 1992, revealed that Rawlings had won 58.3 percent of the vote, for a landslide victory. Foreign observers declared the voting to be “free and fair.”
Almost immediately, the leaders of the country’s opposition parties claimed that the presidential election was not fair, and that widespread abuses had occurred. The leaders encouraged their followers to boycott subsequent parliamentary elections, with the result being that NDC candidates won 189 of 200 seats in the new parliament. Rawlings 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 program to be completed in time for elections in 1996.
It is impossible to make a simple value judgment about the presidency of Jerry Rawlings. During his long tenure as un-elected head of state his government was accused of human rights abuses including unfair detainment and intimidation. In the early 1990s, the economy of Ghana was still not performing as well as it had in the early 1970s, and ethnic unrest was on the rise. On the other hand, 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. And Rawlings’s reputation on foreign policy received a boost when he acted as a key figure in a mediated peace settlement between factions in nearby Liberia, a nation burdened by five years of civil war.
“President Rawlings now faces his toughest test yet—that of shedding the image of the radical military dictator and becoming a democratic constitutional ruler able to create a climate of tolerance,” Ruby Of ori suggested in Africa Report. In defense of his regime, Rawlings told Africa Report: “It is difficult to be objective without seeming to be rather vain about our achievements and without going into numerous little details. But broadly speaking and allowing for the inevitable teething problems involved in instituting and testing out new systems, we can justifiably claim that among our ordinary men and women there is an increase in confidence, self-respect, and sense of responsibility, as well as a practical understanding of the basic purpose for and machinery of government…. People are no longer intimidated by… problems, economic, social, or environmental, but are ready to tackle them.”
Rawlings added: “We cannot wait apathetically without making the effort to establish our own truly democratic system backed by a sustainable economy. We know it is fragile through no fault of ours. We know that it can be casually disrupted if the supposed interests of a major power happen to conflict with ours. But we have the pride and determination to persevere.”
Rake, Alan, Who’s Who in Africa: Leaders for the 1990s, Scarecrow Press, 1992.
Africa Report, July-August 1989, pp. 19–20; November-December 1989, pp. 34–7; May-June 1991, pp. 34–8; July-August 1991, pp. 21–3; July-August 1992, pp. 34–5; January-February 1993, pp. 44–6; July-August 1993, pp. 33–5; September-October 1993, pp. 70–1; May-June 1994, pp. 53–5.
Current History, May 1987, pp. 205–08, 227.
Essence, October 1992, pp. 90–1.
Time, May 27, 1985, pp. 42–3.
—Anne Janette Johnson