It took three days for calm to be restored in Ghana after Jerry Rawlings’ announcement of the coup, or the revolution in his politically-correct-speak, on the airwaves on June 4, 1979.
In the broadcast, in which he showed remarkable verve and equanimity, the one thing he accentuated was that his group, which he modestly referred to as “the ranks” to underline the fact that the coup was orchestrated not by the military fat cats but the rank and file, did not intend to cling to power unduly, that the General Elections to usher in a civilian government would proceed as scheduled on June 18.
Now, at this stage, Rawlings was simply the dissident group’s frontman: the leader of what became known as the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council (AFRC) was Captain Kojo Boakye-Djan, who was at once the council’s spokesman and interim head of government. But because of Rawlings’ ability to hold his audience in thrall, if not spellbound, and which trait earned the AFRC enormous public support, he was designated its chairman. This position made him the ubiquitous face of the revolution and to an extent where he almost totally eclipsed Boakye-Djan, becoming as he did the nation’s rallying cry and its overnight political idol.
On June 7, the AFRC, which was made up of 15 servicemen comprising of junior officers, non-commissioned officers, and privates, convened a way-ahead conference with the 11 presidential candidates, amongst whom was future president Hilla Limann and whose contribution was the sagest. At the meeting, Rawlings reiterated the AFRC’s earnest to be no more than the midwife of a new civilian government. But first, Rawlings underscored, there had to be what was termed as “House Clearing”. Just what was this?
THREE DICTATORS IN THE DOCK
The June 7 AFRC conference was not broadcast live but was filmed for archival purposes nonetheless. The meeting broached a long list of up to 300 names who had to be tried in a military court and if found guilty executed by firing squad if their sin was particularly heinous. This, ironically, was against the spirited but vain objections of Rawlings, who according to snippets from the footage, would rather the guilty were subjected to “penal labour and humiliation”.
At long last, the 300 names were pared down to a short list of only 14, who were not hunted down but were ordered to report to the air force base in Accra of their own accord. They included three former military rulers, top-ranking military officers, and senior civilian commissioners.
The 14 were tried in what was called the People’s Revolutionary Court, which heard cases in camera and without legal representations for the respondents as that would have made the proceedings a long and protracted process at a time when what was wanted was an expeditious, Kangaroo court type of poetic justice to stem the tide of public rancour. One of the arraigned, General Kutu Acheampong, was allowed the opportunity to hold a press conference, where he implored absolution whilst whinging innocence to the many charges of corruption levelled against him. Instead, he pointed to General Fred Akuffo, who had overthrown him on July 5, 1978, as the very embodiment of graft and such turpitude. He stressed that the reason Akuffo and others deposed him had to do with the fact that he was in the process of giving them the marching orders for their perpetration of unconscionable acts of corruption. Of course hardly anyone listening to his supplications was taken in by this desperate blame game on the part of the former autocrat. That the assets of all the accused were published in fact served to further inflame the public and fire their fervour to bay for their blood.
In the build-up to the trial, a Pre-Trial Investigation Team (PIT) was set up to establish legal ground for the prosecution. Its duty was to collect and collate information from the country’s information and security agencies which the People’s Court would use as a basis to prefer charges, conduct trial, and pass its verdict. The PIT was not entirely above-board though: it was heavy-handed to a degree. On several occasions, Rawlings had to summon its members to his office after receiving calls or complaints about the brutalities meted out to some of the people who were being interrogated.
R.I.P AKUFFO AND OTHERS
The People’s Revolutionary Court returned a guilty sentence for all the 14, eight of whom were sentenced to death and the rest handed out jail stints ranging from 3 to 95 years to make the leaders of any future civilian government think twice before repeating the same felonious mischief. This was as per the terms of AFRC Decree 1979, Section 3 (1) Sub-Section A-E).
In order to reduce to the barest minimum the chances of individual members of the tribunal suffering possible mortal victimisation henceforward, the judgement was passed by a bench which was screened off from the people in the dock, so that either side heard voices but saw no faces.
All the respondents were found guilty, not of capital crimes but of “using their positions to amass wealth while in office and of recklessly dissipating State funds to the detriment of the nation”. Those who were hung, between June 6 and June 29th, included General Akwasi Afrifa (Head of State from 1969 to 1970); General Acheampong (Head of State from 1972 to 1978); General Fred Akuffo, the leader Rawlings had toppled and who had been in power since July 1978, or just under a year; and four senior generals. In the hustle and bustle of this rather hectic situation, the House Clearing may not have been exhaustive but the message was loud and clear.
In a reproval chorus led by the ever-pontificating Western geopolitical powers, the so-called international community voiced high-decibel condemnation for the executions, particularly that the trials were hastily conducted and lawyers were barred from making a showing. Asked as to whether the condemned had a fair trial, Rawlings had this to say: “It was impossible to carry out a thorough investigation of their crimes because of the heat. The explosiveness of the situation at that time wouldn’t allow it. It was almost as if people’s minds had been cued up as to what had to be done to satisfy them.” In so saying, Rawlings spoke like a worthy leader, who though personally was far from eager to exact capital retribution on the culprits nonetheless refrained from exculpating himself in the interests of collective responsibility.
Strictly speaking, however, the accused were not entirely left to their own devices in so far as defending themselves was concerned. “During interrogation, the individual had every opportunity to submit any paper, anything in his defence,” Rawlings countered. “They could ask people to come and testify in their cases, right there at their interrogations.”
“LET THE BLOOD FLOW”
As much as the executions were monstrous and therefore abhorrent in that they were effected as punishment for purely white collar transgressions, they had pervasive support across the country and from even the most unlikely of quarters. Whilst it is possible that the People’s Revolutionary Court was driven by strictly juridical precepts to arrive at its verdict, it equally, if not largely, played to the gallery of mass hysteria and an upsurge of raw emotion from the national collective.
The battle cry that rang out across the length and breadth of Ghana was, “Let the Blood Flow”. Another was, “Action, Action”, denoting the people’s unbridled hunger for the ultimate penalty for the convicts. Emanating as they did from the lower ranks of the military, these war whoops were frenetically and feverishly echoed by university students and the general public. On June 13, the media reported of four separate demonstrations by students in Kumasi, Accra, Cape Coast, and Winneba, all cheering on the AFRC and urging it not to relent on its resolve to send the shamelessly rapacious looters of hard-earned national resources to the gallows. They chanted such bloodlust slogans as “Death to the Traitors” and “Kill Saboteurs of the Economy”. Some placards read, “Farming is not a Punishment: Kill Them”, as a coded dig at Rawlings’ futile recommendation that the guilty be sent to penal farms.
There were calls from all walks of life for the executions to leave no stone unturned, for the AFRC not to cherry-pick culprits but go the whole hog, including accomplices from the civilian ranks. The Coordinator of the National Youth Council besought the AFRC to localise revolutionary courts and firing ranges so that capital justice was meted out in the immediacy of regional capitals. As if not to be outdone, religious leaders voiced atypically maverick positions which endorsed violet retribution for those who had “chopped Ghana small”. An editorial by a prominent cleric in The Catholic Standard said, “executions are not the only solution but they form part of the solution”.
A letter to a newspaper by a leading academic by most accounts reflected the archetype of feeling amongst the country’s body politic. It read thus in part:
“I fully support the toppling of Akuffo and I endorse absolutely the determination of the AFRC to wash the country clean with the blood of the corrupt. I have been telling my friends for some time now that Ghana’s only cleansing lotion is the blood of those who so badly let her down through selfishness and corruption. My only fear now is that the AFRC may not do a thorough job of cleansing which requires the execution of at least 500 people. This figure is a studied guess. Ghana is so heavily soiled with corruption that the blood of 500 can be enough only for the removal of surface dust.
“To remove the grime and ingrained dirt, the AFRC has to go a great deal further. Let us pray to Almighty God that they will have the nerve and stamina to go the whole distance. To those of us not directly involved in these matters, we owe it as a duty to Ghana to receive the news of these executions with utmost courage as the good of the common man in Ghana depends on these executions encouraging future politicians to behave.”
Whereas it would be too presumptuous to say the penal hand of the AFRC was forced, it is not beyond the pale to suppose that they were swayed by the public clamour for the culprits to get their just desserts.
Meanwhile, the House Clearing continued apace, with dozens of businessmen thrown behind bars for boldfaced corruption and market women accused of profiteering flogged at public squares. In the event, essential commodity prices plunged spectacularly, not in response to the workings of the invinsible hand of supply vis-à-vis demand but in mortal dread of the austere, no-nonsense JJ.
JJ & CO CEDE POWER
Exactly 112 days after the Rawlings’ putsch, the AFRC lived up to its billing when it handed over power to a newly elected civilian government on September 24, 1979. The new government was headed by the triumphant Hilla Limann, a respected judge.
The handover ceremony was remarkable for its sartorial paradox, with the incoming civilian rulers solemnly, if not showily, decked out in the pomp and formality of rich robes, wigs, and traditional costumes, and the “Revolutionaries”, who were led by Jerry Rawlings as chair of the AFRC, unpretentiously attired in the familiar drab battle dress. “It was as if there were two Ghanas present,” one amused scribal observer noted.
Yet despite the fact that this was Hilla Limann’s moment, it was JJ who stole the limelight and on whom the cameras were for the most part focused. First, he received kudos from the press corps for his brief-and-to-the-point power-transfer speech, in contrast to Limann’s, who intoned meaningless words and other such sugary platitudes, “everything which Rawlings is against”, as one critic bluntly put it. Then the moment he stepped down from the podium, JJ self-effacingly joined the Guard of Honour, amongst whom he stood behind the last rank of the last platoon. Along with Captain Boakye-Djan, he too later deferentially marched past the new President as the gathering euphorically chanted, “JJ, JJ … “
Limann was sworn in as the first President (and the only such, it would later turn out) of the Third Republic. He was Ghana’s eighth ruler since independence in 1957 and the third civilian ruler after Kwame Nkrumah (1957-1966) and Edward Akufo-Addo (1970-1972), meaning Ghana had been ruled by gun-toting bad boys for half the time since the end of colonial rule.
Limann took office yoked to the “transitional provisions” attached to the new Constitution which at the insistence of the AFRC forbade any revocation of the punishments and other decisions imposed by the revolutionary courts.
Note that political historians erroneously list Rawlings as Ghana’s seventh Head of State. Nothing could be further from the truth. The Head of State from June 4 to September 23, 1979 was Boakye-Djan. Rawlings simply was the face of government being chair of the AFRC and being the best known and the most charismatic of the lot.