Let me begin by saying this article may not win me many friends. But here is a case where one has to respond to the imperative of making a clear choice between truth and friends. The reader will soon discover why I say so. On July 11, 2009, President Barrack Obama, while visiting Ghana, addressed the Ghanaian parliament. But his address was not just to his Ghanaian audience, it was meant for the whole of Africa. On that occasion, Obama spoke for democracy. But the jury is still out on Obama’s own legacy especially as it concerns his respect or lack of respect for freedom to hold and express religious convictions in the United States he led for eight years.
To Ghanaian parliamentarians, Obama said, inter alia: “time and again, Ghanaians have chosen constitutional rule over autocracy, and shown a democratic spirit that allows the energy of your people to break through. We see that in leaders who accept defeat graciously—the fact that President Mills’ opponents were standing beside him last night to greet me when I came off the plane spoke volumes about Ghana—(applause); victors who resist calls to wield power against the opposition in unfair ways. We see that spirit in courageous journalists like Anas Aremeyaw Anas, who risked his life to report the truth. We see it in police like Patience Quaye, who helped prosecute the first human trafficker in Ghana. (Applause.) We see it in the young people who are speaking up against patronage, and participating in the political process.
“Across Africa, we’ve seen countless examples of people taking control of their destiny, and making change from the bottom up. We saw it in Kenya, where civil society and business came together to help stop post-election violence. We saw it in South Africa, where over three-quarters of the country voted in the recent election— the fourth since the end of Apartheid. We saw it in Zimbabwe, where the Election Support Network braved brutal repression to stand up for the principle that a person’s vote is their sacred right. “Now, make no mistake: History is on the side of these brave Africans, not with those who use coups or change constitutions to stay in power. (Applause.) Africa doesn’t need strongmen, it needs strong institutions.” (Applause.) Earlier, in the same address, Obama had said: “This is a new moment of great promise. Only this time, we’ve learned that it will not be giants like Nkrumah and Kenyatta who will determine Africa’s future.
Instead, it will be you—the men and women in Ghana’s parliament—(applause)—the people you represent. It will be the young people brimming with talent and energy and hope who can claim the future that so many in previous generations never realized.” When Jerry John Rawlings died on November 12, 2020, my mind went back to that speech of Barrack Obama. Two propositions in that speech have always retained my attention. The first is that in which he said, “Africa does not need strong men, it needs strong institutions.” The second is the one in which he said the future of Africa will not be determined by “giants like Nkrumah”. I do not know if Obama had the two men in mind. What I know is that, in his audience as he addressed the Ghanaian parliament were men and women conversant with the history of Ghana.
In that history, Kwame Nkrumah and Jerry Rawlings stood out as “strongmen”, to use Obama’s words. And, to that extent, Obama’s address to the Ghanaian parliament sounded like an allusion to Nkrumah and Rawlings. Nkrumah fought for the independence of Ghana, became her first Prime Minister, and was a strong leader with a vision. But he stifled opposition, turning Ghana, not into a one-party state, but a one-man state— which is what autocracy is. Autocracy represses the democratic spirit that releases the developmental energy in peoples. With that energy released, their land becomes a habitation of persons of actualized potentials. One major factor that has contributed to the under-development of Africa is that we have had and still have too many autocratic leaders.
They might have acted and might be acting with good intentions. But autocracy manifests itself in paternalism, a totalitarian and tyrannical paternalism that insists that all must think like the leader who is presumed to be infallible simply because he is the leader. After Nkrumah, not immediately though, was Jerry John Rawlings who presented himself as an anti-corruption crusader. At his first coming, he entered the political landscape of Ghana through a coup d’état. He overthrew a military government led by General Frederick Akuffo, who, in a palace coup, had earlier overthrown General Ignatius Acheampong. Ghana, not unlike many African countries, including Nigeria, has had a history of being on the receiving end of her autocratic rulers in military and civilian dresses.
At the end of his first coming, Rawlings organized elections won by Hilla Liman who took over from Rawlings on September 24, 1979. President Hilla Limann’s government was like a government on probation with Rawlings as probation officer. For, shortly after handing over to Limann, on December 31, 1981, Rawlings staged a second comeback. He staged another military coup that truncated the Limann administration. His second coming was longer than his first coming. By the time he organized elections to return the country to civilian rule, not only was he presidential candidate, he had no strong opponent. His reign had been so repressive that no strong opponent could have emerged. So, Rawlings was elected civilian president. Like Nkrumah, who governed Ghana with iron fists, Rawlings was brutal in dealing with dissenting opinions.
It was dangerous to disagree with both men. They both imposed their idea of governance on the people. Many young Africans of today only read about them. Many see them as heroes. Nkrumah and Rawlings represent two of the many instances of apotheosis of the African strongman leader. But I shall focus more on Rawlings. It is significant that Jerry Rawlings died while the dust of the #EndSaars protests in Nigeria is yet to settle. The #EndSaars protests represent a repudiation of police and military brutality in Nigeria. Rawlings represents the ambiguity of military rule and its attendant brutality in Africa, and many instances can be cited to buttress this assertion. A first instance. Upon coming into power through a military coup on June 4, 1979, after an unsuccessful coup on May 15, 1979, an unsuccessful coup that earned him a death sentence, Rawlings and the military junta he headed lined up eight military officers, including Generals Kotei, Joy Amedume, Roger Felli, and Utuka, and the three former military rulers of Ghana— Akwesi Afrifa, Ignatius Achaeampong and Frederick Akufo, and executed them by firing squad upon allegations of corruption.
This is not an attempt to say the men were innocent. This is to express profound regret that these men were not given proper trial. Rawlings later embarked on what he called a “house-cleaning exercise” involving the killings and abduction of over 300 Ghanaians. But many Ghanaians applauded their execution, believing such arbitrary shedding of blood would put an end to corruption. His initials—JJ—became known as Junior Jesus. But when things became hot, students of the University of Legon turned those initials into Junior Judas. A second instance. On a particular evening, during the second reign of Rawlings, three Supreme Court justices, Cecilia Koranteng-Addow, Frederick Sarkodie and Kwadjo Agyei Agyepong were abducted about the same time, only for their corpses to be found later. Also killed secretly were military officers Major Sam Acquah and Major Dasana Nantogmah. Rawlings was never able to deny his role. He was never held accountable. When he was interviewed by the BBC on the episode, he was evasive. A third instance.
The Editor of the Catholic newspaper in Ghana, then Fr Charles Palmer-Buckler, now Archbishop of Cape Coast, was a target of Rawlings’ death squad. Searching for him to kill him, the death squad found a religious brother of the Society of Divine Word who looked like him, and killed him. For days, this brother’s whereabouts were unknown to the Church. By the time his corpse was found, it was in an advance state of decomposition. He was buried before the Mass as his body could not be taken into the Church. Let me say in passing that Rawlings was Catholic. A fourth instance. When Rawlings metamorphosed into a civilian President, he physically assaulted his Deputy during a cabinet meeting. The poor Vice President reported the matter to the police.
But in Africa, leaders are above the law. A fifth instance. On June 8, 1998, when Sani Abacha died. The BBC interviewed Rawlings. During the interview, Rawlings wept and sobbed over the loss of “a good African leader”. But Abacha visited untold brutality on Nigerians. Rawlings’ economic policy of state-controlled economy, his imposition of price control in particular, turned out to be misguided and ruinous. Seeing their catastrophic consequences, he who would not tolerate any opposition to this policy later embraced a free market economy in 1992. But not until after he silenced all opposition to his erstwhile misguided economic policies. His imposition of unrealistic economic policies exemplifies the philosophy that says power is knowledge. But that precisely is what has kept Africa down for centuries, right from pre-colonial years.
Despite his nasty human rights record, as could be seen in the gratuitous shedding of blood narrated above, he is spoken off in laudatory terms by his many supporters. That is why I many not make many friends by writing this article. There have been times some Nigerians, out of frustration over corruption, expressed the wish for a “Rawlings solution”. Corruption becomes an excuse for tyranny in a futile search for an illusory “benevolent dictator”. But in Africa, we can and we must fight corruption through legal means, not by breaking the law. Apart from Rawlings, another poster boy for “revolution” in Africa is Thomas Sankara. As a young army officer, he and his friend Blaise Campaore overthrew the government of then Upper Volta and changed the name of the country to Burkina Fasso. Later on, in a tragic turn of their juvenile military adventure, Campore would kill Sankara in a bloody palace coup. But on this continent of deified rulers, so much myth has been built and peddled around Sankara.
This article is not written to pass a judgment on Rawlings. It is written to, as it were, set the records straight. It is my submission that brutal dictators should not be presented as role models to young Africans. Rawlings might have had the good intention of fighting corruption. But good intention does not suffice. We Africans must learn to hold our leaders accountable. We must rise above our hunger and thirst for messiahs and learn to take responsibility for the common good. Intelligent regulation of our common life must not be outsourced to messiahs. Judgment belongs to God. So also is mercy. We all, including this writer, depend on God’s mercy. When we die, we shall need prayers. May the Lord in his mercy grant eternal repose to Jerry John Rawlings.
“A third instance. The Editor of the Catholic newspaper in Ghana, then Fr Charles Palmer-Buckler, now Archbishop of Cape Coast, was a target of Rawlings’ death squad. Searching for him to kill him, the death squad found a religious brother of the Society of Divine Word who looked like him, and killed him. For days, this brother’s whereabouts were unknown to the Church. By the time his corpse was found, it was in an advance state of decomposition. He was buried before the Mass as his body could not be taken into the Church. Let me say in passing that Rawlings was Catholic”
• Rev.Fr. (Prof.) Anthony Akinwale, OP is the Vice Chancellor Of Dominican University, Ibadan, Oyo State