The complicated political legacy of Jerry Rawlings

Jerry Rawlings is widely cited by working class people as one of Ghana's best presidents. But his legacy is complicated by his association with political violence as a military dictator, and by his ushering in of neoliberalism.

Jerry Rawlings in Somalia with AMISOM. Image credit Stuart Price via AMISOM Flickr (CC).

Jerry John Rawlings has long held a complicated place in Ghanaian popular politics and historical memory.

On May 15, 1979, the then-flight lieutenant led a group of junior Ghanaian army officers in an attempted overthrow of the military government of General F.K. Akuffo and the Supreme Military Council. Rawlings, who insisted that he should be held responsible for the coup, was imprisoned and court-martialed. Soon after, on June 4, he was released from prison by junior military officers in another takeover, seizing power in a successful “housecleaning exercise” that sought to purge the country of corrupt political and business leaders and recalibrate Ghana’s national moral compass. Over the next three months, the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council (under Rawlings’ leadership) executed eight senior military officers, including three former heads of state—Akwasi Afrifa, Ignatius Acheampong, and Akuffo. The purge was supposed to clear the way for new democratic leadership under President Hilla Limann, a former diplomat. Rawlings, however, remained concerned about accusations of persistent corruption within the Limann administration. Rawlings’ “second coming” on December 31, 1981, was widely perceived as an indictment of the entire political class. Condemning Limann and his associates as “a pack of criminals who bled Ghana to the bone,” Rawlings vowed to “organize this country in such a way that nothing will be done, whether by God or the devil, without the consent and the authority of the people.”

Many of Rawlings’ criticisms rang true for Ghanaians who, by the 1970s were suffering the effects of a decades-long economic decline. A series of military and civilian governments promised solutions. While some of those solutions—like Acheampong’s “Operation Feed Yourself” or “Operation Keep Right”—were marked by local successes, national-level interventions were unable to fundamentally alter the structural economic conditions that hampered economic growth in Ghana. By the late 1970s, actions of questionable legality—like smuggling and profiteering—had become so commonplace that few people were immune from accusations of corruption. Entire classes of people—soldiers, market women, drivers—were labeled as criminals and increasingly targeted through legal and social sanctions that sought to identify the cause of Ghana’s problems.

While his political interventions sought to address the economic hardships experienced by the vast majority of Ghana’s population, Rawlings’ rhetoric was ultimately moral rather than economic. Rediscovering and reasserting national morality was the only productive way forward, he argued. Those same moral arguments, however, were used to justify the executions in 1979 and the widely-condemned assassination of Supreme Court justices who had ruled against the People’s National Defense Council (PNDC) after Rawlings’ “second coming.” Rawlings and the PNDC further empowered Local Defense Committees (LDCs) to root out corruption at the community level. The result was a form of democratic authoritarianism to which all citizens were subject.

He is widely cited by working class people as one of the country’s best presidents. Commercial drivers who lived and worked through his military rule until 1992 and then his two terms as the country’s democratic president, for example, often held up both Nkrumah and Rawlings as the country’s most effective leaders because “they made people fear the law.” Authoritarianism, in other words, is not necessarily antithetical to domestic popularity in Ghana.

In some ways, this popularity reflects the success of a shrewd political strategy. Rawlings has been able to successfully shift blame for the executions on junior officers, arguing that he had no actual authority or “force”—only moral authority—in the context of the revolution. The execution of senior officers, he claimed, was done to quell the protests and anger of the people, while the murder of Supreme Court Justices reflected the impertinent action of overzealous junior officers. Their deaths were, in other words, unfortunate consequences of a popular revolution over which he had limited control—a claim he has consistently asserted over the decades of interviews that followed. This epistemological, juridical, and moral distance seems galling in light of the violence.

Of course, Rawlings’ popularity is not universal. The country remains split over his legacy—those who are willing to forgive the violence and human rights abuses as necessary steps to achieve lasting change and those who suffered under his rule. For some, his shift to neoliberal structural adjustment reform represented a selling out of his early ideals, which had profound consequences for Ghana’s economic future. For others, the violence of the period left lasting scars, none the more poignantly demonstrated than when Acheampong’s daughter protested Rawlings’ 2006 attendance of Ghanafest in Chicago, publicly condemning Rawlings as a murderer. Interrupting Rawlings’ speech about the morality of his “lifestyle” at a Chicago church, Victoria Acheampong reportedly held a photo of her father in front of Rawlings, saying “You killed my father. What about us?

Yet, in transitioning to democratic rule, Rawlings was able to preserve and re-brand the legacy of his “revolution” as part of an ongoing battle, rooted in the democratic process—a revolution of the people. Within Ghana, Rawlings continues to hold enormous influence over national political discourse. Although the political party that he founded—the National Democratic Congress—continues to compete in national-level elections and celebrate the anniversaries of the revolution, Rawlings has recast himself as a political gadfly and elder statesman, keeping the revolution alive and supporting the political ambitions of his family members, including his wife Nana Konadu Agyeman-Rawlings and his daughter Zanetor Agyeman-Rawlings. When his former vice president, John Evans Atta Mills, was elected President of Ghana in 2009, popular rumors suggested that Rawlings was operating a shadow government in order to manipulate Mills. In the 2016 elections, Rawlings publicly criticized NDC flagbearer John Mahama for failing to curb corruption, telling a group interview, that I was a part of, that Mahama “deserved to lose” and throwing at least some support behind Nana Akuffo Addo, even as he (ironically) condemned the leaders of the National Patriotic Party as “murderers.” Meanwhile, international organizations seem to completely ignore the violent history of his political rise (see his biography on the InterAction Council website as an example).

These charismatic and self-confident contradictions have long played a role in Rawlings’ success within and outside of Ghana. In both calling for a revolution and achieving a successful transition to multiparty democracy, Rawlings seems to have paradoxically created a political role for himself that is beyond politics. “All African leaders who took power by coup should learn from Ghana’s ex-president Jerry Rawlings,” one Twitter user declared. In April, Rawlings emerged as a powerful influence over conversations about corruption, democracy, and development in Nigeria. Rawlings himself has spoken out publicly in support of the Buhari government, while also urging that national leaders respect the will of the people. Nigerians, however, took to Twitter to call for a Rawlings-style coup to respond to corruption in the Buhari government.

A few months before, Rawlings was trending on Twitter across the continent after getting out of his car to direct traffic in Accra. The acclaim for “Papa J” was overwhelming. “This should be an example to all African presidents. You can serve your people, leave power with dignity, still live free and respected amongst your people,” one Twitter user stated. For many this was another example of Rawlings’ humility as a “man of the people”—a phrase repeated often during and after the dictatorship to highlight the differences between himself and the average political leader.

Rawlings seems to thrive in the midst of these contradictions, which only further highlights how complicated of a historical and political figure he is. But it also says something about national and international political cultures—what we’re willing to ignore in the pursuit of multiparty democracy and the elimination of corruption; how little we understand the commitments necessary to achieve true revolution; the (im)balance of pragmatism and morality in contemporary political discourse.

In other words, Rawlings might be the best example of the very things he complains about. His constant reinvention is a condemnation of the public cultures and political institutions he claimed to reform.

Further Reading