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Fewer deaths had shocked and left me dismayed as that of Flight Lieutenant JJ Rawlings (retired), who died on Thursday, November 12, 2020 a few weeks after he had buried his mother. He was aged 73 years. The death, by car assassination, of Dr. Walter Rodney, Guyanese radical scholar, political activist, and author of the seminal “How Europe Underdeveloped Africa” shook the Left when it occurred on 13 June, 1980 in Georgetown, Guyana. He was aged 38 years. The government of Forbes Burnham was eventually implicated in Rodney’s death.
The death of reggae icons Bob Marley (Jamaican), Lucky Dube (South African), Brenda Fasie (South African), Thomas Sankara (Burkinabe) were some other deaths that got me shattered. Marley’s, on 11 May, 1981, was also an assassination reportedly orchestrated by the American CIA. Both Rodney and Marley were seen as threats to the established order. As an undergrad at the then University of Ife (now Obafemi Awolowo University), Ile-Ife when the two sad events took place, we mourned; we wailed; we railed; we cursed!
Charismatic Thomas Sankara (21 December, 1949 – 15 October, 1987), 38 years, changed the name Upper Volta to Burkina Faso (Land of Honour/Dignity) after the coup himself and his bosom friend, Blaise Compaore, had led to rid their country of imperialist agents and errand boys of foreign capital. Sankara was loved, was celebrated, and was held out as the epitome of leadership that Africa needed to break the shackles of external exploitation of African resources spiralling run-away poverty and misery on African land and people by foreign interests and their local collaborators.
I saw Sankara at close quarters and reported his electrically-charged speech when he came to Abuja for the 10th ECOWAS Ordinary Session (30 June – 1 July, 1986). In his look-smart military fatigue, he was the toast of the media, both local and international. Petty jealousies from his childhood friend, who had benefited immensely from the Sankara family, led to the coup that cut Sankara’s life short. It is instructive that Compaore himself was, in 2014, disgraced out of the same office he had taken in a sea of blood in 1987, Sankara’s inclusive.
I cried when Lucky Dube died on 18 October, 2007 aged 43; he reportedly was felled by common criminals as he went to drop his kids in school. The felons reportedly were after peanuts for survival and to maintain a lifestyle of drugs. When a society gets neck-deep in deprivation fuelling crimes, expect nothing less. I dare to say that Nigeria has arrived at that critical juncture.
O Brenda! Her music; her politics; her mannerism; her stage acts – all of these endeared her to me. She was deeply rooted in her culture and popular folklore. When she took ill and was taken to hospital, I, like then President Nelson Mandela, was one of those who kept vigil and prayed. And when she died on 9 May, 2004 aged 39, I was inconsolable many days.
Rawlings’ death last week took me by surprise – the cause of death no less. Is COVID-19 still with us? And is this sickness truly only that of the rich and powerful? Why is it that the casualties of coronavirus that we hear of are usually men of power and substance? Or is this a case of William Shakespeare’s “When beggars die, there are no comets seen; heavens themselves blaze forth the death of princes?”
Flt. Lt. Jerry John Rawlings burst into limelight on May 28, 1979 when he led a coup to topple the corrupt and inept government of Ghana – but the coup failed. Himself and his six other colleagues were rounded up, tried and sentenced to death by firing squad on June 7, 1979. Rawlings not only owned up to being the leader of the coup but justified its necessity on the need to rid Ghana of corrupt and inept leadership. He chose to pay the supreme sacrifice all by himself while pleading that his accomplices be set free.
The coup convicts were in prison awaiting their execution by firing squad when a group of junior officers helped Rawlings to escape from prison, after which a second push by him succeeded, leading to the removal of the then Supreme Military Council headed by General Fred Akuffo. He took over the reins of power and established the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council (AFRC). One of his first acts in the 112 days he held power was the trial and execution of eight top officers, including three former heads of state, by firing squad for corruption. He thereafter handed over power to a civilian government led by Dr. Hilla Limann.
Two years after; Rawlings was back as he upstaged Limann in a 31 December, 1981 coup which he blamed on poor economic management of Ghana. Rawlings now took the reins of power and formed the Peoples National Defence Council (PNDC). Between 1983 and 1987, he survived five coup attempts. Under his tutelage, the 1992 Constitution of Ghana was promulgated, ushering the country into the Fourth Republic.
Rawlings formed a new party, the National Democratic Congress (NDC) under which he won the 1992 elections and four years later in 1996. Thus did the man in uniform transform into a civilian president. In 2000 at the end of his second and final term in office as civilian president, the apprehension was whether Rawlings would hand over power or would sit tight as is wont to be the taste of many a despotic African leader. To the surprise of many, however, Rawlings handed over power to the opposition New Patriotic Party (NPP), which had beaten his own party, the NDC, in the 2000 elections. Rawlings stepped down and John Agyekwum Kufuor took the mantle as the new Ghanaian president.
Ghana’s history will never be complete without a copious mention of Rawlings. After Kwame Nkrumah, I think Rawlings comes next. The manner of his coming into office resembles that of Fidel Castro in Cuba – a failed coup; a threatened hangman’s noose; providence and a second chance; and, then, survival and success after all hope had been lost. Castro’s “sentence me, it does not matter; history will absolve me” and Rawlings plea to the judge to set his accomplices free have gone down in history as statements that speak to the character of two personalities that, eventually, impacted their countries, leaving indelible imprints in the sands of time.
We need to understand that Ghana was more corrupt than Nigeria before Rawlings’ arrival on the scene. The shock therapy he applied to Ghana is what jolted its leaders and pulled the small West African country from the brinks of total collapse. Talks of “Rawlings therapy or treatment” these days refer to making an example or scapegoat of corrupt leaders, past and present, to serve as a deterrent to others. That was what birthed a new Ghana that has made steady progress ever since.
With corruption tamed and the right economic policies embarked upon, Ghana, that was worse than Nigeria on all the indexes of economic growth and development, made quick recovery and steady growth such that, today, it is a place where businesses fleeing from Nigeria relocate to. It is also a place where Nigerians themselves are fleeing to for a better life and a more conducive environment for business, studies, and medical tourism.
The tides have turned and fortunes have become reversed! Decades back, educated and qualified Ghanaians flooded into Nigeria in search of menial jobs; Nigeria used to be the country expelling Ghanaians from here; chanting “Ghana Must Go”. Today, it is Nigeria begging Ghana to let Nigerians in Ghana be! What makes the difference is leadership and the hare-brained policies Nigerian leaders have chosen to pursue.
While the type of leaders Rawlings shot at the stake bear rule over Nigeria and ruin it, turning it into a pariah, Rawlings gradually built up the status and stature of Ghana, making it the toast of the international community. Foreign leaders like ex-US President Bill Clinton who snubbed Nigeria embraced Ghana. Now, Ghana, and not the giant of Africa, Nigeria, will be West Africa’s international transport hub!
Ghana’s democracy is older than Nigeria’s and is more transparent, open, and secure. When the world fretted, thinking Rawlings would sit tight in office, he accepted an unfavourable result, did not compromise their own INEC or order the security forces to rig elections or shoot defenceless protesters; he did not take away the independence of the judiciary but handed over and remained an ordinary Ghanaian citizen until his death. He died in a Ghanaian hospital in Ghana and not abroad.
Rawlings will be remembered for his many legacies. This was a leader who never promoted himself while in office. He did not enrich himself. Gory stories have been told of how he and his family members had been badly treated by succeeding Ghana governments. Is it a surprise? African leaders generally are the very opposite of Rawlings; so, they cannot like leaders or personalities like Rawlings. For them, Rawlings’ demise is good riddance to bad rubbish, their crocodile tears notwithstanding. An Africa that will appreciate and honour Rawlings and his like is still light years ahead of us.