Jerry John Rawlings: Ghana’s Junior Jesus: This story just has to start from the end. What has remained etched on my mind the most about the man Ghanaians hailed as Junior Jesus (owing to his J J initials) is his answer to the question of “what if he had been Nigeria’s President, would he have done things differently?”
I put that question to him during an exclusive interview at a Presidential Suite of the Abuja Nicon-Noga Hilton Hotel in 2002. He had come into Nigeria for the launch of the NGO, Gede Foundation, founded by one of the wives of former President Atiku Abubakar, Mrs. Jennifer Jamilah Douglas-Abubakar, Ph.D. Mr Greg Obong Oshotse, the then Editor of the Daily Independent newspaper solicited for the interview, invited me to join him to conduct it, but was held up in Lagos.
As that final question left my lips, Rawlings stood up from his seat, yes, that massive frame of his showed its true dimensions, that enormous chest of his, that reminded me of the late Major General Johnson Thomas Umunnakwe Aguiyi-Ironsi’s, was pushed out as the owner went to the window.
He looked in the direction of the Abuja Millennium Park, perhaps taking in the sight of the streets, or (as I thought then and still believe to be true) towards Aso Rock Presidential Villa, which President Olusegun Obasanjo occupied by then, stood there for about a minute, then turned to face me.
This time, his face had changed. The smile that used to play on his lips as he answered my questions disappeared. With a most serious visage, that of a revolutionary as I noted in my Reporters Jotter, he intoned: “Make me, I Jerry Rawlings the President of Nigeria? Oh God, what would I not do with that office? I, a President of Nigeria? I would shake the world. I would change it for the sake of the Black race.”
He shook his head and no matter how long I waited, he added nothing else. The interview was over. And since that day, I never stopped trying to learn the length and width and depth of how Rawlings affected Ghana.
Was he just a blood-thirsty murderer or a nation builder extraordinaire? How democratic was he? I asked this because my friend, Ambassador Cabral Blah-Amihere and his Independent newspapers ran into trouble when Mrs. Maryam Babangida visited Ghana towards the end of the 1990s.
Unlike the staid Daily Graphic of Ghana, Blay-Amihere’s Independent newspaper printed the picture of the comely Mrs Babangida (she of the angelic smile) and the not so comely Mrs Nana Konadu Agyeman Rawlings on the front page; one was welcoming the other. Ghana’s First Lady complained that the publication was a calculated attempt to disgrace her.
That was the straw that broke the camel’s back as the publisher and the Junior Jesus had been seeing things differently. The temperamental Rawlings never forgave the Independent’s publisher and so moved against him. Kabral fled Ghana and into the embrace of the 1991 Nieman Fellowship for Journalism at Harvard. On his return, the opposition embraced him and appointed him Ghana’s Ambassador to Sierra Leone and Cote d’Ivoire.
Yes, Rawlings was terribly temperamental. He executed three past Head of States in one fell swoop too. Beyond that, it is a fact that “Wealth redistribution was the only thing on his agenda for Rawlings believed, perhaps until death, that there was something fundamentally immoral about the state of a hungry working class.
“Unlike military dictators you may be familiar with, Rawlings was an adequately educated military officer whose pull towards populism was not as ideological as it was pragmatic.” Mr Nii Ntreh, a Ghanaian journalist wrote that. And he should know for he wrote too; “there was the incident after 1981 when my maternal grandmother, a burgeoning market queen, lost her stores in Accra’s commercial business district due to the extreme militaristic method of the Rawlings-led Provisional National Defence Council’s (PNDC) ‘cleansing’ of the system. During this purge, every man and woman of means was looked at with enough suspicion that all but confirmed guilt.”
Then he added: “From hindsight, I have picked up two effectively marriageable versions of the same man. From my maternal family, I have learned of Rawlings, the murderous destroyer of futures and fortunes. From my father’s, I have come to know Rawlings as the man who had a reason to destroy and rebuild from scratch, listening to wisdom as he set one brick upon another. Both versions are true. I do not know how I could understand that one man was both things but I did.”
So, why do Ghanaians remember Rawlings as a saint and not a devil? He vowed to lead the suffering Ghanaians out of the desert of national impoverishment and into the economic promised land of plenitude. And he did. Please mark this; when Rawlings ran out of the moneyed class to blame and business to seize, he came to his senses and sought for real solutions.
Even he, during his second coming, as a military Head of State, just like Babangida, he fell into IMF’s clutches. Even he too implemented Structural Adjustment Programme, but while Babangida’s suffocated Nigeria, Rawling’s version, while liberalising the Ghanaian economy brought to Ghana real economic growth—no matter how slow and unequal.
That was why Ghana embraced him when he contested presidential elections in 1992. That was when he put Ghana’s renaissance on a strong footing. Talk of modern Ghana and Rawlings is its father. He built it.
You may notice that I have refused to dwell on the real but fruitless (stupid even) narration that details how Rawlings plotted his first coup, in May 1997, failed, was tried and jailed but was sprung from jail while awaiting the firing squad and became head of state. And how he conducted elections and handed over to civilians in 122 days flat, overthrew that same government later and ruled for over ten years as a military strong man.
What really matters is what he was able to do for Ghana. Today, that nation’s industries are humming, but Nigeria’s are dead or dying. Our public educational system is dead, but Ghana’s is thriving, and the proof is that Nigerian secondary school and university students troop there in their hundreds thousands, pouring some N300bn.