Ghana's turbulent transition: Rawlings and the path to democracy

Stories and facts

Jerry John Rawlings, a prominent figure in Ghanaian history, was born on June 22, 1947, and left an indelible mark on the nation until his passing on November 12, 2020. He was a Ghanaian military officer, aviator, and politician who played a pivotal role in shaping the country's political landscape. This article delves into the life, career, and legacy of Rawlings, chronicling his journey from a young pilot to a key political figure in Ghana.

Jerry Rawlings was born as Jerry Rawlings John in Accra, Ghana, to Victoria Agbotui, an Anlo Ewe from Dzelukope, Keta, and James Ramsey John, a British chemist from Castle Douglas in Kirkcudbrightshire, Scotland. He received his early education at Achimota School and later pursued a military career by attending a military academy in Teshie. It was during his time at Achimota College that he met his future wife, Nana Konadu Agyeman. Together, they had three daughters, Zanetor Rawlings, Yaa Asantewaa Rawlings, Amina Rawlings, and one son, Kimathi Rawlings.

Rawlings completed his secondary education in 1967 and joined the Ghana Air Force shortly after. His dedication and skill led to his rapid advancement within the military ranks, earning him the title of flight lieutenant in April 1978. While serving in the Ghana Air Force, Rawlings began to perceive issues with discipline and morale, largely attributed to corruption within the government.

As he rose through the ranks and came into contact with the privileged classes, Rawlings's awareness of social injustices deepened. These experiences contributed to his growing unease within the military establishment.

Rawlings' discontent with the government, led by General Ignatius Kutu Acheampong, culminated in his involvement with the Free Africa Movement, a group of military officers advocating for change through a series of coups. On May 15, 1979, just weeks before scheduled democratic elections, Rawlings and a group of soldiers attempted a coup against the ruling government but were arrested. Rawlings was sentenced to death, but his passionate speeches on social injustices earned him the sympathy of civilians.

On June 4, 1979, Rawlings was freed from custody by a group of soldiers who believed that Ghana needed new leadership for its development. This event marked the beginning of a turbulent period in Ghana's history. Rawlings formed a 15-member Armed Forces Revolutionary Council (AFRC) and initiated a house-cleaning exercise, which involved the execution of several military officers, including former heads of state.

In 1981, Rawlings seized power again, ousting President Hilla Limann in a coup. He argued that civilian rule was weak, and the country's economy was deteriorating. This period also saw the controversial execution of several individuals, further polarizing the nation.

Rawlings initiated economic reforms, collaborating with international organizations like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. However, these reforms led to dramatic currency devaluation, the removal of price controls, and the privatization of state-owned enterprises, causing economic hardships for many Ghanaians.

In 1992, Rawlings transitioned Ghana back to democracy. He founded the National Democratic Congress (NDC) and was elected as the President of the Fourth Republic. Rawlings was re-elected in 1996, serving two terms, as prescribed by the Ghanaian Constitution. After his presidency, he endorsed his vice-president, John Atta Mills, as a presidential candidate in 2000.

Rawlings played a crucial role in ensuring a peaceful transfer of power to the opposition, John Agyekum Kufuor, in 2001, marking a significant moment in Ghana's history.

Following his presidency, Rawlings remained active in Ghanaian and international affairs. He served as the African Union envoy to Somalia and delivered lectures at various universities. His unwavering support for the NDC was evident, and he continued to influence the nation's political landscape.

Jerry John Rawlings passed away on November 12, 2020, at the age of 73. His death was met with a national outpouring of grief and remembrance. He was accorded a state funeral, and his legacy, though complex, continues to shape Ghana's political and social discourse.

Rawlings received several awards and honors throughout his life, including the Order of Jose Marti by Cuban leader Fidel Castro in July 1984. He was also bestowed with an honorary degree (Doctorate of Letters) from the University for Development Studies in northern Ghana in October 2013, recognizing his contribution to the establishment of the university.

President Nana Akufo-Addo recommended to the UDS Governing Council that the institution be renamed in honor of Jerry John Rawlings. The proposal was approved by Rawlings' family, as he had initially used his $50,000 Hunger Project prize to initiate the university's establishment.



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