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J J Rawlings: “I did what I had to do”

In part two of his “Sunday Night” interview with Kwaku Sakyi-Addo, Rawlings shared residual feelings of guilt about the 1979 execution of Akwasi Amankwaa Afrifa – and waxed lyrical about two ladies

“I had no choice but to step in, because the last time they [the Limann-era intelligence services] arrested me, they nearly succeeded in eliminating me. That’s when I decided, ‘No more – they have to go.’ ” The cold tones in which Flight Lieutenant Jerry John Rawlings enunciated the words spoke volumes.

He was in conversation with Kwaku Sakyi-Addo for Sunday Night on Asaase Radio.

As they chatted in the garden of the family getaway at Vume-Tefle, in the Volta Region, and later on board his private boat, Ghana’s former military dictator offered choice insights into the events that drove Rawlings the carefree junior officer and turned him into an all-powerful figure, the mere mention of whose name struck terror into the hearts of many Ghanaians in the 1980s and 1990s.

“Dodging bullets” and going rogue

In part two of his two-and-a-half-hour-long “boom interview” with Sakyi-Addo for Sunday Night on Asaase Radio, Rawlings revisited 1979 and recalled spine-tingling moments during his failed coup attempt of May that year. At one point, a bullet intended for him narrowly missed its target, pinging off metal and leaving him with a grazed hand.

Rawlings was detained as the Supreme Military Council (SMC) junta went through a palace coup in which Ignatius Kutu Acheampong was ousted and exiled to his village of Trabuom, in the Ashanti Region. Acheampong’s deputy, General Fred Akuffo, assumed the leadership of an SMC Mark II.

Then, during his “first coming” less than a month later, on 4 June 1979, Rawlings’s fellow junior officers sprang him from jail. The young rebels faced life-and-death choices about what to do with the senior armed forces officers they had just overthrown. The 15 members of the new junta, which called itself the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council (AFRC), ran the risk of imminent revolt as the lower ranks of the military called for the blood of all senior officers.

As Rawlings recalled, there was one senior army man, “a respectable general” whose life had been spared during the “uprising” because the non-commissioned officers admired his discipline and professionalism. Rawlings, as chairman of the AFRC, was supposed to sign the death warrants for the leading members of the former military government.

It was not difficult, he told Kwaku Sakyi-Addo, to decide to execute the first two: Acheampong and Edward Utuka. But the decisions about the others were more difficult.

A death list was drawn up by common agreement between the AFRC members, and “one evening, I don’t know if it was the evening before the departures [that is to say, executions] had to take place”, Rawlings took it to the “respectable general” for approval. His response: “Where is the rogue? The rogue’s name is not on the list.”

Western exposure

That “rogue” was Akwasi Amankwaa Afrifa, the former leader of the National Liberation Council, which overthrew the government of Kwame Nkrumah in February 1966.

Rawlings had told the story before, in cruder terms, when his priority was to name names and get accusations off his chest. But he spoke more deliberately in conversation with Sakyi-Addo, revisiting the events with passion but clinical precision more than 40 years after the fact.

Rawlings described “the Afrifa situation” – meaning his execution at Teshie Firing Range together with Akuffo and his fellow SMC members Joy Amedume, George Boakye, Roger Felli and Robert Kotei on 26 June 1979 – as “absolutely unnecessary”.

The “respectable general” demanded Afrifa’s head. He “said Afrifa had been advanced a good load of money to wage a campaign against Acheampong’s Union Government”. Acheampong’s model of governance for Ghana involved power-sharing between the military and all political parties.

“The money incidentally came from an establishment within an organisation in the West: I don’t want to say the name now,” Rawlings said. “Instead of using that money to wage that campaign, against Acheampong, he used it, according to the general, to edge out … Paa Willie, who I believe was the leader of the UNC [United National Convention] at that time.

“[Afrifa] edged out Paa Willie and took over the leadership of that party. I know I wasn’t too much into the politics of those days, but that is what he said. Whether it happened or not, I don’t know …

“So I kept quiet, then went away and did what I had to do.”

One for the girls

Under international pressure, Rawlings the military ruler civilianised his leadership in 1992, overseeing the consultation process for drafting the Fourth Republican constitution and a return to democratic government.

He reflected for Sunday Night on what the historians might make of his eight years in office as an elected leader. In doing so, he showed an unexpectedly tender side as he paid tribute to his wife, Nana Konadu Agyeman Rawlings.

The couple have known each other since they were classmates at secondary school in Achimota and she has been one of the greatest influences on him politically “for sure”, Rawlings said.

“My wife was not sitting at the Castle drinking tea: she was in the villages around the country. She was sleeping in very rough places. And we had no choice, really, but to get involved with the people, and that was tiresome, that was tiring.

“Besides, you’ve got to understand that our leadership was more or less related to what I like to describe as being compassionate, your respect for the people … However, there are those who lead using the … fear factor. And people who use the medium of fear … are able to relax and orders are obeyed, because people are afraid of the government, of them.”

He spoke admiringly, too, of their eldest child, Zanetor.

“She has a good future in politics, because she is a very dedicated person, a highly disciplined and brilliant person,” Rawlings told Sunday Night. “Yesterday I saw something she had unleashed on Twitter and I couldn’t help getting back to her and saying, ‘You’re amazing.’

“She’s sharp, and I think the country needs people like that. And I’m not sorry that even though she went into the medical profession she’s gone into politics – to help prevent the situations that put people in hospital.”

“Is she in the right party, when her mother’s party is the NDP?” Sakyi-Addo asked.

“I think we will not comment on that one either. I remember that I said that would be her decision, whether she chose to join NDC or any other party … She will have to live with it. She will have to take responsibility for it.”

The repeat broadcast of part two of the “Sunday Night” Rawlings special will be aired on Tuesday 14 July (7pm). Catch it on Asaase Radio (99.5FM).

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