Jerry John Rawlings was a flight lieutenant in the air force and became a military populist when he led his first successful coup d’état in June 1979 that led to the overthrow of General Fred Akuffo’s regime.
Unlike the many others leaders Ghana has had, Rawlings subsequently led Ghana through the difficult years of economic recovery and was successful in giving back to Ghanaians their “national pride”.
Most politically Inclined people would attest that without his strength of character and determination to revive the economy of the country, Ghana would not have pulled through the Economic Recovery Programme (ERP) of the 1980s, which was put in place by the then ruling Provisional National Defence Council (PNDC).
He addressed problems of corruption, incompetence and injustice because he saw himself and his leadership style as being the watchdog for the ordinary Ghanaian.
He attempted to decentralise the roles of government from Accra) to other parts of the country and due to this, he instituted a transition from authoritarianism to a multiparty democracy.
The PNDC established the People’s Defence Committees (PDCs), which served as a system of cooperatives and this became a distinctive move that had never been seen in the political economy history of Ghana.
Rawlings happened to be part of an underground movement of military officers, called the Free Africa Movement, which wanted to unify Africans by staging coups.
His first attempt to overthrow General Fred Akuffo’s regime, in May 1979, was unsuccessful and led to his arrest.
Rawlings was publicly sentenced to death, although his statements on the social injustices in Ghana which he said had motivated his action won him civilian sympathy.
While in prison awaiting his execution, he was moved from custody on 4 June 1979 by a group of soldiers who claimed that the government of that time was very corrupt and beyond redemption. For Ghana to develop, the soldiers said, a new leadership was required.
This was how Rawlings came to lead the coup that overthrew the Akuffo government – the Supreme Military Council II.
A short time after the coup, he set up the 15-member Armed Forces Revolutionary Council, which consisted of junior officers, and became the chairman of this council. He implemented a wider house cleaning exercise after the execution of certain officials. This house cleaning involved the killing and abduction of over 300 Ghanaians.
On 24 September 1979 he handed over power peacefully to Hilla Limann, whose political party had the support of followers of Kwame Nkrumah. Within two years of handing over power to Dr Limann, he struck again, overthrowing the president in a coup d’état on 31 December 1981. This time, he claimed that the country’s economy was deteriorating and that civilian leaders were weak.
He later established the Provision National Defence Council (PNDC), the military junta which served as the official government’,. Just like other leaders, Rawlings blamed the social and economic problems on a few businesspeople claiming that they engaged in antisocial activities and trade malpractice.
The economic policies that were implemented by Rawlings led to an economic crisis in 1983 that forced him to undertake structural adjustment and made him to election in order to retain power. He adopted conservative economic policies and reserved course that included dropping subsides and price controls in order to reduce inflation, privatizing many state-owned companies and devaluing the currency in order to boost exports.
These market measures that Rawlings put in place rapidly revived the national economy, giving Ghana one of the highest economic growth rates in Africa by early 1990. He formed the National Democratic Congress after the 1982 coup and gave the party the chance to survey civilian opinion and make recommendations which would facilitate the process of democratic transition.
A committee was set to draft a new constitution. Rawlings won the 1992 election and won majority of votes, preventing a second round of voting. The 1992 elections made Ghana a multiparty democracy again. The opposition parties did not accept the election results, citing instances of vote stuffing in the regions. They had believed that Rawlings was likely to lose the election. But the Commonwealth Observer Group, led by Sir Ellis Clarke, accepted the result and described the election as free and fair.
Rawlings took office on 7 January 1993, on the day that the new constitution came into effect, ushering in Ghana’s Fourth Republic. He was re-elected in 1996 as president of the Republic of Ghana and ended his reign in 2000. The 1992 constitution limits a president to two terms in office. Rawlings did not attempt to amend the constitution so that he could run for a third term in 2000. He retired in 2001 and was succeeded by John Agyekum Kufuor, the candidate since 1996 for the New Patriotic Party (NPP), the strongest rival party to his NDC.
This was the first time in the history of Ghana that a reigning government had handed over power peacefully to an elected member of an opposition party.
Rawlings was named the first International Year of Volunteers 2001 eminent person by the United Nations secretary general, Kofi Annan, in November 2000. He won this honour because he attended so many events and conferences promoting volunteerism.
Again, he was named the African Union envoy to Somalia in October 2010. The following month, he attended the inauguration of Desi Bouterse as president of Suriname. He also paid a tribute on behalf of the president of Ghana and all Ghanaians when in September 2019 he led a delegation to the funeral of Robert Mugabe, the former president of Zimbabwe.
He ruled Ghana for 20 years. Even after leaving political office, 20 years later, Ghanaians still have varying opinions about Flight Lieutenant Jerry John Rawlings. His persistent political influence on Ghana may be second only to that of Kwame Nkrumah, Ghana’s first president.