Rawlings – June 4th 1979 was not your finest hour, your best moment was January 7th 2001 – by Ade Sawyerr
into civilian presidents and then find it difficult to leave the national scene. These ex-presidents do damage to our democracy because they become obsessed with the preservation of their legacies and end up meddling in the small stage of their countries. These presidents would serve their legacies better if they transform themselves into international statesmen on a larger scene where the benefits of their experience as heads of state will be better valued.
So when I hear persons such as Babangida and Obasanjo in Nigeria and Rawlings in Ghana going on about parties they created, I wonder why they do not put their leadership experience to bigger challenges in full view of the whole world. Military dictators, in my view, owe the electorate a debt of gratitude for disrupting the democratic process of their countries inevitably they leave their countries in a worse state, socially, politically and economically, than when they took over. We civilians are therefore grateful for term limits on presidencies; the fact is that presidents do not perform better because they stay longer, most do not come with any vision for the transformation of their countries and it is likely that the longer they stay the worse they will become.
I have read the recent pronouncements of Flight Lieutenant Jerry John Rawlings Retired, a former military ruler and former president of Ghana extolling the ideals of June 4th, one of the most chaotic period of our political life in Ghana. The tragedy that was unleashed on the people of Ghana by mindless soldiers, supported by students barely out of breeches who had no concept of governing a country having only experienced a clueless military government, gives me the shivers even today 30 or so years after the event. Supporting actor in this June 4th braggadocio, is another retired soldier, Major Boakye Djan now seeking another taste of government as a civilian legislator; he who wants us to believe his invention that the spokesperson is the actual leader and the leader is really only ceremonial.
I lived in Ghana between June 4th and September 24th 1979 and I did not see any probity and accountability during that period. All I saw was the chaotic posturing backed by empty rhetoric of young men and some boys, drunk with power, intent on sending our country into an unfortunate downward spiral of economic disaster that unfortunately was inherited by the legitimately elected civilian government of the Peoples National Party.
June 4th was about students who had misread bits of Marxist political theory mistakenly thinking that those concepts have general applicability far removed from their context of 19th century peasant Europe and could be transplanted into 20th century Africa. For them, the Russian revolution could be replicated by a military revolution in Africa, totally forgetting that soldiers in Ghana are part of the elite protected by generous salaries from our taxes.
June 4th 1979 was not about probity or accountability; it was about wanton destruction of private and public property, about seizing of assets that had been acquired legally, about settling scores with imaginary enemies. This looting led to the destruction of one of the mainstay of the economy, Makola Market, because soldiers wanted to rid the country of ‘kalabule’. In their misguided mind destroying the edifice was enough; sadly they ended up destroying the bastion of legitimate trade in the country. The economy ground to a halt during that period. That unfortunate act I consider to be at par with Busia’s bungled implementation of the Aliens Compliance Order; both robbed the country of entrepreneurial expertise and skilled manual labour and to date I cannot see how bombing Makola Market could ever be equated with the promotion of social justice as has been claimed by the youthful braggarts that cheered on that incident.
The house cleaning exercise was all about lofty ideas of fixing a country that had struggled under the yoke of a military that had strangled the fragile economy and replaced it with rent seeking behaviour that was driving the country into bankruptcy. The fact of fixing a country however demands vision beyond youthful exuberance. There were even disputes, after the event, about where the monies extorted from supposedly corrupt business people had been lodged and Accra was left in a much filthier state after the housecleaning exercise. That period was total chaos and there is nothing to celebrate about it. I still fail to see the ideals that day represents.
June 4th achieved nothing notable for Ghana and did not add to, or lead to, better governance; it pales into insignificance when compared to the achievement of Rawlings when he handed over to Kufour on 7th January 2001. So why he continues harping on about that day beats my imagination.
Talking about Rawlings here triggers a trip down memory lane to my secondary school years and questions about whether there were any indicators that the Jerry John that I knew would turn out to be the leader that some sections of the public craved for in 1979, hailed in 1982 and resoundingly voted for as president twice in 1992 and 1996? All of what I write about him is of course unauthorised since I have not seen him or spoken to him since 1977 when I organised some meetings of my year group at Ambassador Hotel during the golden jubilee celebrations of our school.
My first sighting of Rawlings was when he entered Achimota School in September 1961. He was one of the more remarkable young boys in that cohort assigned to Guggisberg House.
I picked on him immediately and got him to carry my trunk and chop box into the house and dormitory. He and Lawrence Dagadu were probably the biggest, though Holdbrook Smith was certainly the tallest. The others that I remember are David Wilson, Gilbert Mansu-Asmah, then Foli, Benneh, Adu, Mainoo, GEY Doe, Ansafo-Ofei and Tekpetey.
Of course he was not too happy that such a small boy had bullied him, and was livid when he discovered that I was also in the same D dormitory with him and was also a Form 1 boy, though in my case I was repeating because I had spent the better part of the year in hospital which meant that I missed some of my exams and flunked those that I took. He however had to live with the fact that I was there to initiate them through the course of negotiating their way through the school as Nino boys, a fate that I had endured the year before, and was spared this time round.
Though we stayed in the same dormitory, I do not recollect being in the same class with Jerry. For some reason in our junior years, the youngest students were put in the A stream where I was, the oldest in the D stream and the Roman Catholic students in the C steam where Jerry was.
The Roman Catholic students had an infallible Pope, read the Knox version of the Bible during the morning quiet period, they went to a separate chapel in the main administration block and part of their service was in Latin, they used a rosary like the Muslim prayer beads which had always fascinated me, they chanted Hail Marys and they were the reason why we were always served fish on Fridays and they actually went to confession, to confess their sins to a priest. What sins at that age? Jerry John was a devout Catholic and took his religion seriously during his junior years and I have always wondered what it was that turned a cherubic ruby cheeked choir boy who served at the altar of God into the macho irreverent boy of later years by the time he left the school.
He was academically sound and in the fourth and fifth year it was clear that his interests went beyond the academic and the technical, he was good with his hands, creative and loved the pursuit of fine arts. For some reason, I always felt that he would have ended up in design and would have been an outstanding architect or a design engineer combining the artistic with the technical.
Rawlings at secondary school was one of the stronger boys who also excelled in sports, aggressive and confident. He was a good swimmer and a good boxer and practiced Judo though that was not on the normal sports curriculum and I am certain that he would have readily taken on weightlifting if that had been part of the fare.
He was also a hard worker around the House, good at ground work, strong enough to lead in the digging during ‘ground work’ and whilst some of us struggled to carry gravel from the Anumle pit, and recycled faeces or the ‘category’ as we termed it, from the school farm to fertilise our garden. It was not just the load that was heavy, the buckets were heavier because the base was lead but strong Jerry found this a bit of a doodle and took it in his stride. He was also a stickler for cleaning and tidying up around the house and the public places, though not necessarily around his own bed.
He liked to be in charge and in control and did definitely exhibit some leadership qualities to the extent that in his fourth year he became the sub inspector in the house. In that role he was the responsible for the rota of cleaning duties around the house, supervising and inspecting the work, I suppose that is where he got the house cleaning business from. His leadership style of course was more Attila the Hun than Mahatma Gandhi, using the stick many more times than the carrot even when the carrot was the better and more effective method. Of course the younger boys added Jimmy Judo to his name in attestation of his motivational style. In essence he did get things done and did ‘motivate’ others under his control.
He was more laid back when he became the full inspector in Form 5, in realisation that coercion results in resistance and that if he delegated more, his expertise at cleaning alone would get their commitment. But he could also be persuasive and most times had quite a few of the junior boys around his bed side. He would regale them with stories that he had read from books about the Second World War and how the Yankees, Frogs, Limeys won the war from the Japs, Nips, Krauts and Jerries. So Rawlings always told a good story and could also sweet talk most people into doing his bidding, even begging when he had to. I can visualise him as he was then, with his Elvis Presley haircut and his tight shorts and raised collar and scruffed up short sleeves crooning the Jailhouse Rock with its attendant gyrating moves in the middle of D dormitory to the younger ones and his rather successful attempts to tease some Elvis chords out of the remaining two strings of an original six string guitar.
But we all also enjoyed the usual pranks of young boys growing up, the disenfranchised, disaffection that leads to disruptive behaviour. The fights, though a strong boy, he did not get into too many of those, the one that I remember was a fight against authority – against the House Prefect because he had been admonished for being much much less than gentle against one of the juniors in the performance of his duties as a sub inspector. But it was not in the proportion of other epic fights that I witnessed in my time that were usually over girls, who did not even know that they had admirers, Livingstone v Chester – that was in the Pottery shed, and the epic one of Phorcys v Avalon that started in Aggrey House and down to Guggisberg House and eventually ended in the Cadet Squad because the fighters had run out of stamina.
But there were occasions when Jerry was a complete villain such as throwing sand into the chopbox room because I had refused to share my soaking with him, and rightly so because I had just seen him feasting with some friends in Gyamfi House. He had eaten all his provisions; I had husbanded mine and did not think that he deserved to partake of mine. Another was on my confirmation night, I returned to the house to find that the special cake that my grandmother had baked, that I had hidden under my bed, had disappeared and I was sure that only Jerry could have found it.
In our final year when we occupied adjacent beds there were the frequent arguments about tidiness that resulted in our dividing the space and agreeing that it should extend to the rest of the school. I could have sworn that he had the classroom and I certainly had the Dining Hall, and yet he found all manner of ruses to invade my territory and we had to subject this arrangement to so much negotiation that we both tired of it. But his irritating habit of using my comb, I never could forgive him for. The only other pranks that I can remember was running away to town, we all did it but I suspect he more than me and they were always finding ways of trying to drive the car of our old school music master Professor Ian Hall, and of course we had Reverend Agbeti as House-master who sometimes indulged us when we chanted – ‘Father, forgive them for they know not what they are doing’ the classic excuse and plea for forgiveness.
So if the essential ingredients in leadership are motivation and communication, then we should all have seen those signs in the young Rawlings. Jerry had always been a good communicator and he had a way of over dramatising situations with unnecessary attendant histrionics. There was also a certain air of paternalism around him, which allowed him to be extremely participative and deferential to people when he was not on solid grounds on any issue; a tactic he used to demonstrate his loyalty to his mates so as to motivate them to higher things, even if he lacked clarity in the vision thing. Thinking back to those days I am certain that he would have made a good dormitory monitor and a house prefect, despite the frequent brushes with authority, if he had gone on to the sixth form.There was another passion about Rawlings then – the Cadet Corps. He loved it, he loved it and he loved it. You just had to see the time he took polishing his boots, blancoing the belt, cleaning the puttees and ironing his cadet uniform, oh how I hated those coarse shirts myself, but Jerry John looked every part the soldier then, which is why some of us were not surprised that he went into the Armed Forces like the other disruptive macho boys of our time who felt that they only looked good when they were in uniform. (Why are anti-authoritarian ill disciplined tough guys attracted to the armed forces, an institution which, in my view, is fit only for repressed and suppressed masochists? Is it the rigid hierarchical structure of the institution and the obey before complain rule as we used to be told?)
And so I endured Jerry for five very long years in secondary school and though we moved from dormitory to dormitory over the years we were almost always in the same dormitory, notorious boys involved in all the pranks that young boys transitioning into men would engage in, most of us with an anti authoritarian streak that got us to spend several hours doing ‘fatigue’ or ‘project’ for the usual reasons of breaking school or house rules.
The army must have moulded Rawlings very well and though it did not curb his anti-authoritarian streak, his bravery in taking on his senior officers endeared him to some in Ghana and perhaps that is why he sees June 4th as his finest hour.
I left Ghana in the third republic when Limann was in power. Rawlings, as I understand it had turned down an opportunity to go abroad to study and re direct his life to other things probably because he had a mission to accomplish.
I suppose that having had the taste for power, and being ambitious, it was alright to do it a second time. This time around I am told that he assembled a team of technocrats, disgruntled, failed and wannabe politicians, lecturers of indeterminable commitment to their career, some of his class mates and some student leaders, some armed forces officials and some hockey players, several friends of his wife to run the country, of course the Marxist and theoretical socialists saw their main chance and joined him at the hip. The fact that they changed course several times and submitted to the World Bank neo-colonial orthodoxy of how countries in Africa should develop underlined that fact that he had come back with no vision and no plan for the country.
But I must be fair to Rawlings, he saw through the rhetoric of this cheering but clueless band and adapted to ruling a country and managing an economy that had crumbled because of his own acts of coup making. The fact that a culture of silence developed amidst some accusations of human rights abuses did not help the economy – a salutary lesson for future coup makers. Though I begrudge him, he was a leader of sorts. He used his interpersonal skills well, he inspired a lot of people especially the younger ones and his communication skills helped as he soldiered on in search of his dream of a fair and equal society inGhana.
Rawlings did well to subject himself to elections and he won and won again and I applaud him more for what he learnt as a civilian ruler than what he did as a military dictator. There were times that he was exceptional as a leader in resolving conflict and his charisma continues to shine through and endear him to many. His best moment though was when he handed over power on 7th January 2001 and Ghana and Africa saw a flawless transition from one political tradition to another.
But I expect more from Rawlings than he is giving now and hence my disappointment at his continued antics in Ghana politics. We do not have many in Africa who have been heads of states and have managed that transition into the international arena as statesmen. Rawlings should move on to that terrain, he should be active in solving problems of Africa.
Rawlings must realise that he is bigger than the NDC. The political party that he founded is an anachronistic political party with no vision of the future Ghana and that is why he struggles to try and whip it into shape in his own image. Rawlings is also too big for Ghana, his real role should be on the continental and international scene to show to every one that despite the dearth of political leaders in Africa there is no deficit of statesmen who after they have performed as leaders on the country scene can make the transition unto the world stage.
What we really really need in Africa is a corps of retired political leaders who will travel from country to country lecturing on the practical aspects of how they run their countries, developing case studies of what to do and what not to do, providing scenarios of real problem solving and helping to set up schools for future political leaders.
The challenge for Rawlings is how to solve the problem in Somalia and how to rid the world of malaria; he will forever be remembered if he rises up to the challenges of our modern times and forgets about what he did in Ghana 30 years ago. I hope that having taken him down memory lane he will buck up and roll up his sleeves for those challenges. Ghana will survive without his intervention but the world is crying out for a statesman of his stature and I certainly hope that he is up to the task!