Jump to navigation

Africa Confidential, June 1979

What will Rawlings do?

Flight Lieutenant Jerry John Rawlings staged his first military coup as a young revolutionary in May 1979. When it failed, he was imprisoned and sentenced to death. Following another coup mounted by junior army officers in June 1979, Rawlings was set free, and became Head of State under the banner of the the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council. In September 1979, the AFRC handed over power to Hilla Limann of the People's National Party, after he won the presidential elections.

In 1981, Rawlings toppled Limann in yet another coup. He remained a military dictator for 12 years until he was elected President in 1993, a position he held until 2001, when John Kufuor's New Patriotic Party (NPP) government came to power.

Although praised by many in the West as a democratic figure, especially in comparison to his counterparts in Sierra Leone and Liberia, Rawlings has not been able to shake off the stigma of military dictator.

Print this special report

From the Africa Confidential archives

AC Vol 20 No 13 | 20 June 1979

As we go to press, it appears that either the Popular Front Party (PFP), led by Victor Owusu, or the People's National party (PNP), led by Dr. Hilla Limann, is likely to emerge as the eventual winner of the elections begun on June 18. But in the minds of Ghanaians the real question is not "Who is the new civilian leader?" so much as "When—if ever—will Flt. Lt. Jerry Rawlings and the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council (AFRC) (which came to power in a coup on June 4) hand over to the civilians?"

Rawlings' assumption of power seems to have initially been welcomed by most ordinary Ghanaians, although it met with considerable scepticism and anxiety among many intellectuals, politicians and older folk. (To be exact, those politicians who stood to fare poorly in the election were relatively enthusiastic, while those who looked well-placed felt otherwise).

At first, in the minds of many Ghanaians in the street and in the villages, Rawlings undoubtedly won the mantle of a folk hero and was viewed as a man unfairly gaoled by the then head of state, Gen. Fred Akuffo, and as an idealist burning with a desire for social justice. But the summary shooting of Akuffo's predecessor, Gen. Kutu Acheampong, without a proper trial, has certainly dampened the enthusiasm of many, even though Acheampong's rule was widely regarded as exceedingly venal.

Rawlings and his friends had already bungled one coup attempt when they tried to seize power on May 15. After a struggle, in which one officer was killed and some hostages, including the British military attaché, were held for a time, they surrendered. But it was Rawlings’ testimony at his subsequent court martial that inspired his rise in popularity. There were rounds of applause in the court when he explained his disillusion and disgust at the fact that not one of the notoriously corrupt senior military men in the Acheampong government had been prosecuted.

Gen. Fred Akuffo had talked much about “accountability” when with his fellow officers he pushed Acheampong from power in July 1978. He forced many into retirement and set up commissions of inquiry to investigate some of the worst dens of corruption—the cocoa industry, timber and shipping. But none appeared in court. Many Ghanaians began to suspect that any evidence that might be given would implicate other members of Akuffo’s Supreme Military Council—perhaps even Akuffo himself. The final straw for the young officers was the decision to release Acheampong: he was cashiered from the army and confined to his Ashanti village, but, with millions reputedly salted away, he remained untouched and unprosecuted.

Early in the morning of June 4 Rawlings was sprung from detention in Burma Camp, outside Accra. We understand it was carried out by an airforce corporal who led Rawlings to Broadcasting House where he broadcast his call to the junior ranks of the armed forces to mutiny. He then apparently took off in an airforce plane.

Later in the day Gen. Neville Odartey-Wellington, head of the army, arrived at Broadcasting House in an armoured car, blasted his way in with machine guns, causing several casualties, and broadcast that the coup attempt has been defeated. He later amended this to an appeal to Rawlings to come for talks.

Rawlings later returned to Accra and engaged in a shoot-out with armoured cars firing machine-guns at Odartey-Wellington’s position. The general rejected calls to surrender and was shot dead as a police station was stormed. Col. Joseph Enninful, who had been trying Rawlings by court martial, was also shot dead, together with his wife. Rawlings then assumed complete control and no further resistance has been reported.

Rawlings’ first big meeting was with all eleven presidential candidates, with the much noticed exception of Victor Owusu of the Popular Front Party, and with representatives of all six political parties. By all accounts it was a friendly meeting. Rawlings humbly asked the help of the politicians and gave assurances that the election would be held on schedule. He later decided to bring the new constitution into force on October 1. The idea of an elected president waiting in the wings until October, while the AFRC ‘cleans up’ seems bizarre to many Ghanaians, but Rawlings points to the American example, where a new president must wait over two months before assuming office.

Son of a Scottish father and an Ewe mother, Rawlings is remembered by people who have known him since his days at Ghana’s smart Achimota School as a fairly able but extremely volatile personality. In addition, his apparent eminence grise and spokesman on the AFRC, Capt. Boakye-Djan, is like-wise considered clever but embittered. The other eight members of the council include two majors, but the rest hold lesser rank. Under half are officers, and have never exercised any substantial form of authority before. They are unlikely to inspire much immediate confidence in the foreign bankers and IMF economists whose assistance the Ghanaian economy direly needs.

Parallels with the single-minded Ethiopian junior officers and NCOs who have countenanced the violence that has marked the post-Haile Selassie era in Addis Ababa have been drawn—allegedly by Rawlings himself. But he has strongly denied any Communist inclination. There is in any case “no difference” between the American and Russian systems, he is said to have declared. Many Ghanaians, it must be added, although stunned by the executions and fearful of further possible bloodletting, agree with Rawlings that a drastic ‘clean up’ is long overdue.

But other anxieties are also besetting the populace. For a start, there is much talk that Rawlings’ AFRC is dominated by the Ewe, at the expense mainly of the Ga and Ashanti. Odartey-Wellington, it has been noted, was much respected by his fellow Ga. Owusu, it has been pointed out, is one of the late Acheampong’s fellow Ashanti.

Alongside the AFRC stands a shadowy civilian ‘advisory’ group, which is said to include three Roman Catholic priests. The key adviser, we hear, is Kenneth Acquah, a former employee of the Central Bank and brother of Budu Acquah, one of Nkrumah’s leading ideologues. Kenneth Acquah has been an agent for military intelligence under previous administrations and is valued for his knowledge and contacts from the past. Another important figure may be the trade unionist and former disciple of Nkrumah, Tetegah, another Ewe.

Although the People’s National Party (PNP) led by Limann is often considered the natural heir to Nkrumah’s old party, it is unknown whom—if anyone—Rawlings himself would favour, though his step-father, Prof. K. Adu-Boahene, has campaigned vigorously for the United National Convention (UNC) led by William Ofori-Atta, often thought a notably ‘clean’ contender but too old to attract a mass following.

More than a mutiny?
It is not yet known, however, how secure a grip Rawlings has imposed on the security forces, upon whom he ultimately must depend. The ‘revolution’ was certainly no national uprising. It was essentially a mutiny led by a few junior airforce officers and some junior members of the 5th army battalion. The elite 1st infantry battalion stationed at Tema initially remained loyal to its officers and was reluctant to submit to the command of Capt. Smith, an associate of Rawlings. The possibility of a counter-coup, rumoured to be imminent two days after the June 4 putsch, cannot yet be entirely discounted. The key army defector from Akuffo to Rawlings was Lt.-Gen. Joshua Hamidu, who seems to have been pressed more or less willingly into becoming the liaison officer between the AFRC and the governmental and army machinery.

Whatever his hold over the security forces, Rawlings’ most urgent task is the same as that which defeated Acheampong and Akuffo before him: to prevent the already bankrupt country from descending into the utter chaos that seems imminent. There were numerous examples of indiscipline among soldiers immediately following the coup. Lebanese and Syrians were harassed on arbitrary charges of corruption. Young solders who support the AFRC forcibly shaved the heads of senior officers supposedly associated with the former government. There were three days of looting by army and police after June 4 in such places as the Makola market.

With inflation still running at around 100%, many Ghanaians are finding it hard merely to survive. Low-paid workers receive around 5 cedis per day, while the cost of basic good us as follows: a plantain: 1 cedi; a tin of milk: 3.75 cedis; two small maize cobs: 2 cedis; 1 cassava: 3 cedis; 1 yam: 10 cedis. It is understandable, therefore, that nurses, who receive around 6 cedis a day, have been on strike. And there is much urban discontent at low wages.

The AFRC has peremptorily ordered shops to sell at fixes prices which in effect may put businesses entirely out of operation, because they can only make profits by selling at far above the official prices. There could be a large increase in shortages and food riots may even ensue. Hospitals, too, are almost defunct, through lack of medicine and drugs. The transport system is breaking down through lack of spares and petrol.

It was perhaps unfortunate that an IMF team was in Accra on June 4. Its members were, we hear, ‘unamused’ by the soldiers who burst into the Ambassador Hotel, where the IMF group was staying, and looted the bar. Yet Rawlings appears to believe that if army discipline is restored and corruption —“rape and plunder”, he has called it — is ended, then all will be well.

Given the increasing turbulence that such economic distress may well provoke, Rawlings may find it harder to surrender power after October 1 than to retain it. If either Owusu or Limann takes over, the task will be no less daunting.