Granted, in Ghana Jerry Rawlings had become a folk hero, his cult of personality, which he never remotely courted anyway, spontaneously growing by leaps and bounds with each passing day. In much of the rest of the world, however, he was little more than a thug bent on a madcap settling of vaguely substantiated scores. The executions were still fresh in the people’s minds and the flak thereof was at fever pitch. Signs were that despite his having handed over power to a civilian regime in double quick time and without equivocating, the barbs and broadsides would keep coming thick and fast, from near and far.
Embassy officials from the US, Britain, France, Canada, and Germany were the first to call on Rawlings and tick off to him a riot act of sorts if just one more life was terminated in addition to the eight he had already dispatched. Togo, Ivory Coast, and Upper Volta (now Burkina Faso) were also quick to register their horror and revulsion, with the latter halting meat exports to Ghana to further drive the point home. Ghana’s giant next door neighbour, Nigeria, rubbed salt into the wound when it slashed the credit period in respect of Ghana’s oil imports from 90 to 30 days and demanded that all sums in arrears be cleared forthwith or else … Nigeria’s then military leader, Olusegun Obasanjo, was galled that General Fred Akuffo, a former classmate of his and whose last state visit was to Nigeria, had fallen to the bullets of a Rawlings firing squad.
Amid the welter of mudslinging and recriminations, however, was a whole gamut of ironies and unabashed hypocrisy. Obasanjo had come to power after the assassination of General Murtala Muhammad and his own regime revelled in carrying out executions of armed robbers in public squares regularly rather than once in a while. A straight-talking German diplomat also tore into the Western powers for looking the other way while General Acheampong was busy ravaging Ghana’s economy by hook or crook but now ranted angrily over his warranted demise. An English woman who had lived in Ghana for the greater part of her life wrote a blistering letter to a newspaper defending the eight executions for what she called “de-development” and the abject poverty in Ghana, much of which arose on the watches, collectively, of those who had been executed. When soldiers broke into General Afrifa’s house to “make an inventory”, they found three, profligately ostentatious gold-plated beds when the average Ghanaian could not even afford an all-wood bed, let alone a foam mattress.
All told, the placards that were being waved by caravans of fulminating members of the All Africa Students Union could not have hit the nail more crisply on the head. “Hands off Ghana”, “Imperialist Britain”, “Obasanjo Who Are You”, “Down With Foreign Pressure”, they blared loudly.
BACK TO THE BARRACKS WITHOUT FANFARE
Having handed over power to the newly installed civilian government headed by Hilla Limann on September 24, 1979, Rawlings did not hung around to bear down on the new president like some sort of Colossus of Rhodes but returned to his daily and familiar grind as Flight Lieutenant in the Ghanaian Air Force. Nor did he press for an indulgent rise in rank, which Limann in all probability would have readily obliged him with a view to currying lasting favour with him. He was content to be where he used to be without placatory tailor-made perks and any other such trappings and paraphernalias of high office which would have artificially made him tower head and shoulders above his fellow revolutionaries as well as the grassroots, with whom he at once identified and saw common cause.
That is not to say Limann had not gone to every length to entice Rawlings away from the domestic scene. He had offered him diplomatic posts, scholarships tenable overseas, and the like, all of which Rawlings had rejected with the contempt they deserved. He was adamant that there was no way in hell he was going to bow to pressures to go into tactical exile. “No one would believe that I simply want to go back to the barracks,” he said. “Ghanaians always think that someone who has been high must remain there. I want to be only of service, to use what we have accomplished in the country.”
Meanwhile, his humility, simplicity, air of sincerity, and his consistent declarations on behalf of the poor and the oppressed provided an embarrassing contrast to the arrogant pomp and circumstance of conventional elitist politics in Ghana. For a long while initially, he kept himself well out of the limelight so as not to overshadow or haunt the president, though he could not wholly keep at bay the press of admirers and hero worshippers whenever he ventured out in the broader public domain. This was the Rawlings of post- September 29th that year according to one report: “The tall and energetic ace pilot is a voluntary team manager of the Armed Forces boxing team. He is a horse rider, a keen swimmer, and a marksman. Odd jobs are also his pastime and he is often seen in his track suit driving the forklift, lifting heavy loads at the Air Force Station.“
As chairman of the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council (AFRC), Rawlings had run the gauntlet of threats to his life which came from radical elements within the military, whose sleazy ways he had abruptly brought to an end, as well as from seething malcontents in the broader society who in one way or the other were the collateral casualties of the siren call of House Cleaning he took up. The threats did not faze him an iota. If he was killed, it would not change anything, he maintained every time he was so reminded. “There are dozens of other JJ Rawlings in the society,” he would point out.
As an ordinary citizen once again, threats to his life almost completely petered out and he went about his life without a single care in the world. In any case, it was in the interests of the sitting government that he was in fine fettle all the while as were he to meet the slightest harm, all hell would literally break loose in Ghana.
JJ BOOTED OUT OF THE ARMY
For as long as Rawlings roamed the barracks and had all the time to hobnob with and even possibly radicalise his fellow, hat-doffing soldiers, however, he would still be regarded as a powder keg by the Limann regime, as the perennial sword of Damocles hanging over its head. In point of fact, Limann was always reminded by his advisors and the implacable prophets of doom that were the invariably inflammatory Western press that there was no way he was going to consolidate power with Rawlings strutting the ranks of the military still.
To many, therefore, it came as no surprise that Rawlings was forcibly but procedurally retired from the army in December 1979, exactly three months after he had gaily, albeit solemnly, wished Limann godspeeds as he acceded to the highest office in the land. Though gutted, Rawlings did not protest: only sedately cried foul. As far as he was concerned, it was simply a cowardly ploy by the new government to douse his flame and consign him to obscurity in a desperate bid to reassert itself.
“I didn’t expect them to retire me at all,” he griped. “I was doing what I could for the good of the country. And considering that I had also played my role to contain the tempers, the anger, I thought the last thing they would try to do was to get me away from the boys, seeing the positive influence I had on them.”
Certainly, the removal of Rawlings’ moderating influence within the ranks had substantially increased, if not guaranteed, the likelihood of a new military uprising.
In his power transfer speech on September 29, 1979, Rawlings had made it clear whilst looking Hilla Limann straight in the eye that if he and his ilk used their offices for personal aggrandisement, they would be resisted and unseated no matter how impregnable their positions might seem. “We will be watching you with eagles’ eyes to see whether the change we are hoping for will actually materialise in our lifetime,” JJ thundered, wagging a warning index finger at Limann in the process. “We have every confidence that we shall never regret our decision to go back to the barracks.”
It took no more than 24 months for the hopes of Rawlings & Co to be unsalvageably dashed. In fact, no sooner had Limann been sworn in as food prices returned to the same, exorbitant levels they were pre- June 4. Soon inflation was officially more than 140 percent, though in truth it was way higher and bordered on stagflation, with a flask which ordinarily would have cost $3 now fetching $100! The country was in the throes of food and fuel shortages and endemic corruption persisted, not to mention political dysfunction. One senior government official was accused of having received a whopping $5 million back-hander from a European money mint after persuading President Limann to give the green light for the company to print Ghana’s paper currency. Needless to say, public discontent began to spill over into unrest.
The new government dismally lacked the imagination to innovate, and instead of focussing its energies on poverty eradication, the source of the deep-seated instability in the country and the accompanying despair, it made an art of playing upon the fears of yet another military take-over, with Rawlings yet again being its spearhead, as a devious red herring. Limann, who incidentally was seen by many as a mere stooge for Rawlings, himself plumbed the depths of presidential indiscretion and thanklessness by dismissively referring to Rawlings, who was only marginally above 30, as “that boy”, whilst Rawlings’ other detractors in the executive maligned his mixed race parentage, chiding him as only “half-African” and not a full-blooded son of the soil.
Hilla Limann must have secretly rued having culled Rawlings from the army as subsequent to that, Rawlings travelled extensively throughout Ghana to give rabble-rousing speeches that were as bold as they cut to the heart of the matter. Crowds turned out in their droves to hear him lash out at the political elite for the country’s stalled economy, flaunted indiscipline, and rampant corruption. He denounced the “rottenness” of a system that “would permit those same corrupt forces to retain their hold on Ghanaian life”. Of course this was poison to the ears of the Limann’s of this world but was music to his rock star-like following.
JJ STRIKES AGAIN
Although he had involuntarily thrown off the army fatigues, Rawlings still was a soldier at heart. He maintained strong links with the country’s 18,000-man military force, who interpreted his subtle banishment from the barracks as no more than an indefinite sabbatical. Their stake in him was everlasting: to them, he was simply on loan to the civilian realm.
By December 1981, Rawlings had had enough. On New Year’s Eve of that month, he was back on the airwaves to announce the ouster of Hilla Limann with the aid of the same disaffected and disgruntled privates and non-commissioned officers. He called the 47-year-old Limann and his supporters a “pack of criminals who bled Ghana to the bone”, who “turned hospitals into graveyards and clinics into death transit camps where men, women, and children die daily because of the lack of drugs and basic equipment”.
Once again, people cascaded into the streets to celebrate the second coup in the space of only two years and by the same man. This time around, the acronym JJ now was sanguinely corrupted to “Junior Jesus”, after the famous Jewish messiah of first century Palestine.
Was it a fitting christening of the otherwise deeply flawed and fallible Rawlings who reasoned more with his emotions than a sober mind? Would he indeed turn out to be Ghana’s political messiah? Was the reincarnation into a revolutionary Jesus prematurely heralded?