By Ade Sawyerr
Jerry John Rawlings, my house and classmate, passed away on November 12, 2020. He dominated Ghana politics for over 20 years, as Military Head of State, President and founder of the 4th Republic. He was also a polarising figure and remains so in death.
The ruling New Patriotic Party, whose party was in opposition when he was President, are unsure whether to disown or claim him in death, although President Nana Akufo-Addo has ordered a 7-day period of mourning Former NDC president Mahama, however, has complained that his party is being prevented from mourning the father of their party and has led an independent vigil to mourn him. Both parties claim to have suspended their campaigns during this period of mourning, but many of the messages of condolence and eulogies surrounding his legacy are thinly veiled party political statements.
Even in her grief, his widow, Nana Konadu, has to decide whether to continue with her bid to contest the election as a presidential candidate for her own party, the National Democratic Party, that broke away from the NDC.
But what exactly is the legacy that Ghanaians are fighting over and how is this legacy of any significance to the rest of Africa?
Rawlings burst onto the scene with his initial coup attempt on 15 May 1979, in response to what he considered the corruption and mismanagement of the ruling regime. Following the failure of the coup, he was put on trial and sentenced to death. He managed to escape custody and on 4 June had the opportunity to run the country for three months. It was clear,
however, that he had no plan beyond his fight against corruption. He returned to the political scene in 1981, with renewed vigour – and continued in office as Head of State and then President until 2001. His aim was to run a ‘more participative people’s government’ with accountability and probity at its heart.
His vision was well-intentioned, and his rhetoric helped convince the ordinary man that he had their best interests at heart. However, he ended up being the poster boy for the international economic agencies. They desperately needed a success story from Africa and imposed a harsh macroeconomic structural adjustment programme that stabilised the economy but failed to make Ghana the world-beater so many of us had hoped for.
Rawlings was a godsend for those who wanted economic growth and development. He was seen as a selfless man of principle, a fearless leader intent on social justice, eager to correct injustice and stand up for the common man against the rent-seeking elite who were strangling the economy. He was also an excellent communicator, and many will mourn him as an upstanding hero who dominated and intervened on the political scene when he saw fit. His legacy as a brash, bold, no-nonsense champion of the common man will remain and endure. A more measured scrutiny of his time in government, however, tells us that he was ill-prepared for the task he took on and that soldiers cannot run countries very well. The business of political leadership is best left to political parties who bring competing ideologies and well thought out policies. Rawling’s record shows that leaders without a plan may well succeed in managing the country but will struggle to transform the economy or the fortunes of their people, especially if their economic solutions are not homegrown.
Is Rawlings’ legacy of any significance to the rest of Africa?
An advanced soul and good intentions ultimately count for nothing, if there is no plan to create robust institutions and sound enduring policies. Corruption is still rampant in Ghana and in these days of globalisation our country still serves the economic interest of others and continues to cry out for transformation.
Rawling’s legacy must teach us that staying longer in government does not make you better at running the country and that the business of running a country is a continuum. Leaders should aim to achieve their best within the shortest possible period.
Whilst Rawlings continued to intervene and inspire in Ghana after he left office, it was a disappointment to me that he did not turn his attention to the wider scene in Africa. That he did not intervene to resolve any major crisis or contribute to the eradication of a deadly pandemic. Had he done so, he would have been better appreciated across the continent and could have claimed his place as an international African statesman.
No matter what, we can still mourn Rawlings as a man of passion, with good intentions for the uplifting of the common man.
May his soul rest in perfect peace in the Lord.