Monday, June 16, 2008

The man J. J. Rawlings – yesterday and today

On June 4, 1979 a young Flight Lieutenant in the Air Force of Ghana, broke all bounds of military discipline and stormed the airwaves announcing a military take-over of the reins of government in Ghana.He did so with the help of a handful of soldiers most of them junior officers who were most probably spurred by Communist and Machiavellian philosophies of a just society. And when they did, only few Ghanaians were surprised by the violent take-over of power because the country, then under a military regime was literally grinding to a halt, even though, the military adventurists in power were almost at the verge of organizing an election to hand over power to a civilian government.
Under the leadership of General F. W. K. Akuffo, the economy was in a mess, there was so much rot and indiscipline in the army and corruption was suffocating the national conscience. The arrogance of power and sheer political buffoonery held sway.Jerry John Rawlings, who burst into the scene, had already made some waves following his failed attempt to seize power on May 15, 1979. He was arrested together with some junior officers who supported him. And the military regime of the day, attempting to appear fair, put Rawlings and his accomplices to a public trial.
And Rawlings made a meal of the public trial by boldly taking responsibility for his actions and asking that his accomplices should be set free and he should be made to face the consequences of his actions.His display of bravery, courage and boldness before the tribunal helped to soar his image before the public, because already, the military regime which itself took over power from another military regime headed by Kutu Acheampong in a palace coup had lost favour with the people.And the acceptance of Rawlings by the people during his trial after the May 15 abortive coup won him many admirers and therefore, paving the way for his acceptance after June 4.His name, J. J. Rawlings, therefore, boomed in every nook and cranny of the country. He was described and hailed variously as “saviour”, “Junior Jesus”, “messiah” and some called him charismatic.However, a careful look at Ghana’s political history and development on hindsight following his entry into the body-politic through force, underscores the overwhelming curiosity of many Ghanaians who want to know the exact part he played in Ghana’s socio-economic symphony orchestra and whether that role and tune he played had led to any lasting economic achievement, social cohesion and overall national progress.
The respected German Professor of Communication, Michael Kunczik postulates that, “developing countries find themselves almost constantly in a crisis situation. Part of the general public in these countries is striving for better living conditions.” And that was exactly what the reality on the ground was when Rawlings stormed the political stage. A large number of Ghanaians were wallowing at the brink of poverty, and they were being strangulated by high cost of living while a few elites and those connected to the usurpers were living well.Rawlings struck the right chord that resonated with the majority of the people. He played the populist tune and it caught on so well that it earned him the accolade - charismatic leader. With this belief, the truism was set to stand the test of time, and again would be gauged with yet another view by Kunczik that, “charisma is no gift in the sense of being a specific personal quality, but is rather from the angle of the followers of the leader, an effective yielding, conditioned by the historic situation.” And moreover, since charisma is a faith that is projected on a leader-figure, as if this leader was endowed with charisma, the conditions prevailing at the time, quite easily created the platform for Rawlings to be called charismatic. But is he?Rawlings handed over power to a civilian government, headed by Dr. Hilla Limann after general elections in 1979. But he took over power again from the administration he handed power to in another coup and hung on to power from 1981 to 1992 as a military leader.
His Provisional National Defence Council (PNDC) government has been described as quasi-military, and he ruled by decree.During this time the population increased, environmental issues came to the fore and had to be grappled with. And the government’s development and economic policies were not successful as expected, while some failed completely, largely due to lack of knowledge and a dearth of the political know-how of some members of the Rawlings team in managing the country in those times.There were also the problems of uncontrollable economic influences like the rising cost of raw materials, oil price explosion and balance of payment challenges. The team that Rawlings worked with appeared to have been overwhelmed by the economic circumstances of the period which exposed their lack of knowledge of economic conjunctions which led to a fall in the value of the cedi and other factors that stifled economic growth.Gasping for economic breath under the pressure to deliver the basic needs of the population, Rawlings and his group were compelled to accept IMF policies, line, hook and sinker no matter how much it chocked them. Even though, Rawlings did not hide his aversion for the Bretton Woods institution.The insensitive policies of the IMF appeared to have only benefited Rawlings, his team and their praise singers. And the Ghanaian’s dream of attaining economic respite became a pipe dream.
The Structural Adjustment Programme (SAP) led to stringent measures that led to loss of jobs and slowed economic growth. Indeed, recently, the IMF subtly admitted the failure of that policy in developing countries. The SAP was followed by PAMSCAD, the Programme of Action to Mitigate the Social Cost of Adjustment. As the name was, it was intended to correct the problems that SAP created. But it also did little to help. The Rawlings period was ruthless and many paid with dear life, others also fled the country. Ghanaians were told it was necessary to punish the few suspected saboteurs for the good of all. And Ghanaians were promised that there was going to be a better life under the man Rawlings, who put his life at stake for the many by taking the risk of staging a coup so he could extricate the poor Ghanaian from the iron fist of the rich so that he would distribute the national cake equally.Rawlings openly condemned the presumed opulence and extravagant lifestyles of those he considered rich. He couldn’t imagine that some people could afford to own two toilets in their homes while the folks at Nima and other places queued to use the public latrine at some parts of the capital. It was unthinkable and unacceptable to him that some Ghanaians could afford to send their children to school abroad as well as own property in Europe and America.
During his almost twenty years rule of the country the trend however, did not change, unfortunately. The rich became richer and the poor continued in their poverty. He probably tasted carvia and loved it, and then forgot about the masses – the poor masses.His 20 years in power makes him the longest serving head of state ever in the history of Ghana. No one would ever equal this record! He ruled for nearly 12 years as a military leader and another eight years under constitutional rule even though he didn’t believe in the ballot box, and still does not. He has openly said that several times that Ghanaians have lost count of it.While he is credited for laying the foundation for democratic rule, some of his critics doubt that assertion because they argue that it couldn’t be so because of his open disdain for party political activities and the ballot box.In whatever light Rawlings is cast, he failed in some of his attempts to make Ghana a better place, and he did succeed in others.
And no matter how Rawlings is viewed either by his admirers or his critics, he would always remain an integral part of Ghana’s political history.That is why some political observers wish that he would stay out of politics, avoid public pronouncements on national issues and keep his views to himself. It is the way to go, if he must keep some of the shine he gained during his early days in the saddle of government in this country.Rawlings today, is seen by many as a man who stood by some principles of justice, truth and equality for which some even died to help him establish, but today has tasted the good things of life and suddenly turned coat. He is undoubtedly a member of the country’s elite, and that is so because he is now a former President. So is it wrong in the first place to have condemned the elite in the days gone by when he held power? And what about his charisma? Is he still a charismatic leader? Can we say that he succeeded in accomplishing the ideals for which he risked his life on June 4, 1979 – that was 29 years ago. Well, Prof. Kunczik says, “in case of a failure the charismatic leader quickly becomes a scapegoat.” And could that be the reason why, some are even eager to point to current failures of leadership as vestiges of the Rawlings era?

Authored by: Emmanuel K. Dogbevi

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