One of Africa’s most charismatic and colourful leaders, Jerry John Rawlings died on 12 November 2020. He was born on 22 June 1947 in Accra, Ghana to a Scottish father and a Ghanaian mother. In October 2018, I was part of a Namibian government delegation that visited Ghana.
I went there in my capacity as then board chairperson of Air Namibia. Our visit was crowned by a courtesy call on Jerry Rawlings, the former President of Ghana. Given my leftist bent, I have always had a soft spot for Rawlings. During our brief encounter with him, I realised that his mind was still razor-sharp, and he was still on top of his game, regarding African politics.
He had an easy manner about him and took a keen interest in each and every one of us, thus making us feel at home. Knowing that our late revered Ghanaian political science lecturer at the then United Nations Institute for Namibia (UNIN), Chris Hesse, was a close ally of his, I made reference to him.
I watched this great man closely as he almost lost composure at the mention of the name Chris Hesse; but being a strong military man that he was, he immediately gathered himself.
When the second Rawlings coup took place in 1981, Chris Hesse told us in class in his heavy-accented English and in his typical mannerism of moving his heavy frame slowly about that: “Rawlings has people behind him; and I am one of them!”
In June 1979, Rawlings and other junior officers led a successful military coup with the aim of purging the military and public life of widespread corruption.
He and his Armed Forces Revolutionary Council ruled for 112 days, during which time the former heads of state, General Ignatius Acheampong and Lieu. Gen. Frederick Akuffo were tried and executed.
These were not the only known public figures to have been executed by Rawlings during his reign. Rawlings then yielded power to a freely elected civilian president Hilla Limann (Wikipedia, accessed on 15 November 2020).
Rawlings continued to be a popular figure and on December 31, 1981, after two years of weak civilian rule during which Ghana’s economy continued to deteriorate, Rawlings overthrew Limann’s government, accusing it of leading the nation “down to total economic ruin” (Ibid). Rawlings established a Provisional National Defence Council as the new government and imprisoned Limann and some 200 other politicians. “Peoples’ Defence Committees” were set up in neighbourhoods to defend the revolution, as were workers’ councils to monitor production in factories (Ibid). When the failure of these and other populist measures had become clear by 1983, Rawlings reversed course and adopted conservative economic policies, including dropping subsidies and price controls in order to reduce inflation, privatising many state-owned companies, and devaluing the currency in order to stimulate exports (Ibid). These free-market measures sharply revived Ghana’s economy, which by the early 1990s had one of the highest growth rates in Africa. In 1992, in the first presidential elections held in Ghana since 1979, Rawlings was chosen as president. He was re-elected in 1996 and stepped down from the presidency in early 2001 (Ibid).
The question is, why were the ideals held by leftist-leaning African leaders like Nkrumah, Nyerere, Rawlings, Thomas Sankara and others – despite their many weaknesses - so appealing to the African youth of the seventies and eighties? After the attainment of political independence by many African countries, most of them have mainly remained producers and exporters of raw materials and importers of manufactured goods from the west and now from China. This unequal international division of labour – that has led to the underdevelopment of the African continent – is what is called neo-colonialism.
The central ideal behind socialism, that was later to lead to communism, as conceived by Marx and Engels, was a more humane society. It was a call for brotherhood, solidarity and equality of all people. The creation of a socialist state, under the leadership of the working class was to, ideally, lead to a classless society and the abolition of the state as an instrument of class rule. Unfortunately, what unfolded in the then Soviet Union and other socialist countries in Eastern and Central Europe, was contrary to that original ideal.
In the former socialist countries, the Communist Party – the vanguard of the revolution – became a monster unto itself controlled by the party elite at the expense of the workers, peasants and other strata in society.
The dictatorship of the proletariat (working class) was replaced by the dictatorship of the party. In short, the above were some of the major internal contradictions that caused the collapse of the socialist states in Eastern and Central Europe.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union and other socialist countries in Eastern and Central Europe in the 1990s, socialism, as an international project, was forced on the back foot. Unlike the Cold War period which was characterized by superpower rivalry between the US and the Soviet Union in a bipolarized international system – pitching multiparty democracy and capitalism on the one hand against socialism and one-party rule on the other – by the mid-nineties the world was completely different.
Multi-party democracy and neo-liberal economic policies have now gained international currency and “acceptance” as the two core sets of norms underpinning what has come to be known as the good governance paradigm.
As I tried to argue above, socialism as an ideal is based on social justice and it is about caring for and empowering the masses of the people to be able to define their own political, economic and social destiny.
That explains why Jerry Rawlings – despite his poor human rights record – was a darling of the African left. The socialist ideals of the African left which Rawlings stood for, might have been “wounded” but these are not dead! I do not endorse the gross human rights violations that were committed under the reign of Jerry Rawlings; but I salute a brave fighter for social justice who was trying to uplift the lives of ordinary Ghanaians. And in that process, many unforgivable mistakes were made. May his soul rest in eternal peace.