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7-10-2015, 05:18

Rawlings, Jerry John (1947-)

Ghanaian Politician and Former Coup Leader

Considered by many as the leading figure of the “new generation” of African leaders, Jerry Rawlings was born in June 1947 to a Scottish father, who had been a chemist in Accra, Ghana’s capital, and an Ewe mother. Rawlings attended the prestigious Achimota Secondary School, leaving in 1966 to join the air force the following year. Following his initial cadet training he was posted to the No. 1 Communication Squadron. At the time of a military mutiny that he led in May 1979, he had achieved the rank of flight lieutenant and was attached to the No. 4 Jet Squadron in Accra. There he had begun to identify with a group within the armed forces who considered that there was an urgent need for radical political change in Ghana.

The genesis for a growth of radicalism in the armed forces was the dramatic decline in Ghana’s economic and political fortunes. Ghana achieved independence from Britain in 1957, but by 1977 real wages were estimated to have fallen to a quarter of their 1972 value and authoritarian, military-led governments had become the norm. In an economic world of shortages and a political world of unaccountable governments, black markets and corruption, a demand grew for fundamental changes. With the government decidedly unpopular for its denial of democratic rights, the ever-growing economic hardship, and corruption among the military leadership, the military ruler, General Ignatius Kutu Acheampong was replaced by his deputy, General Fred Akuffo. The new administration promised to hold multiparty elections, but public dissatisfaction had reached the point where there were demands not just for civilian government but for the punishment of Acheampong and his colleagues for their corruption and mismanagement.

It was chiefly a burning sense of outrage and injustice occasioned by such events, as well as a serious and prolonged decline in living standards, that led Rawlings to lead a small-scale armed forces mutiny on May 15, 1979. Although Rawlings was arrested, two weeks later, on June 4, a successful military uprising erupted that resulted in his release. Appointed head of state by the coup leaders, Rawlings sanctioned the executions for corruption of the three surviving former heads of state: Generals A. A. Afrifa, Akuffo, and Acheampong. While Rawlings claimed not to be personally in favor of such killings, he was aware that the anger of the ordinary soldiers was barely under control. Consequently, had those judged guilty for Ghana’s decline not been killed, Rawlings believed that the “entire officer corps would have ended up being eliminated because they [the ordinary soldiers] would have seen this as just another example of officers’ solidarity, another conspiracy of the officer corps to protect itself” (quoted in Okeke 1982, 52).

Following a brief, intense, yet unsuccessful, period of attempted “house cleaning” to rid the country of corruption, elections were held in September 1979. An elected civilian government led by Hilla Limann, whose People’s National Party was molded on the Convention People’s Party of the late president Kwame Nkrumah, came to power. The incompetence and corruption of this regime contributed to its short life. In addition, its assiduous hounding of Rawlings helped to precipitate a further military coup, led by him on December 31,1981. This time Rawlings said he wanted a revolution, something that would lead to an appreciably more just equitable order in Ghana, in which ordinary people would have a say in the formation and execution of government policies.

The second phase of Ghana’s postcolonial history, from 1981, is a story of evolving political stability and growing economic steadiness. But the period is nonetheless intensely controversial, centering on the figure of Rawlings: nothing divides Ghanaians more than their opinions regarding their ruler of the last two decades. All would agree that he has been a pivotal, absolutely central, figure in the country’s political and economic fortunes; but he is a hated figure for some, a hero to others. Yet even his greatest critics might well agree that his initially chaotic, then authoritarian, and finally democratic rule has managed to take Ghana through the uncertainties of the 1970s to the political balance and comparative economic equilibrium of the 1990s.

Ghana’s dire economy improved under Rawlings’s leadership. By 1985, two years after the commencement of a highly controversial economic “structural adjustment program,” Ghana had become the International Monetary Fund’s (IMF) star pupil in Africa, held up as a staunch exponent and regional showcase example of economic reform. As a reward, over the next decade Ghana received more than $9 billion (U. S.) in foreign loans, principally from the IMF and the World Bank. Primarily as a result of the economic reforms and foreign injections of funds, Ghana achieved significant growth between 1984 and 1993, with the economy growing by an average of 5 per cent annually. With the population increasing by about 2.6 per cent a year, annual real growth of around 2.5 per cent was a highly commendable achievement, one of the best in Africa at the time. Since then, however, progress has been less swift.

Initially it appeared that the second Rawlings government would institute a one-party system, but later its political focus changed: an early socialist orientation gave way to a concern to build local-level democracy with a “developmentalist” focus, with mixed results. Under pressure from both home and abroad, Rawlings set in motion a transition to multiparty national politics in 1990, which resulted in presidential and legislative elections in 1992 and again in 1996. Both presidential elections were won by Rawlings, and the parliamentary polls by his party, the National Democratic Congress. This characterized the progress from personalist rule with socialist pretensions to an increasingly stable pluralist democracy under Rawlings’s leadership. Under the 1992 constitution, Rawlings could not serve for a third term; John Kufuor won the presidency in the 2000 election.

Jeff Haynes


Born in Accra in 1947. Formally educated at Achimota School, before joining the air force, where his involvement in radical politics developed. Led armed forces mutiny in May 1979 and was imprisoned. Released soon after to lead successful military coup d’etat in June of that year. Handed over power to elected civilian government in September 1979. Led a further successful coup in December 1981. Served as head of Provisional National Defence Council government from 1982 to 1992, during which he presided over growing economic and political stability. Elected president in elections in 1992 and 1996.

See also: Ghana, Republic of: Achaempong Regime to the Third Republic, 1972-1981; Nkrumah, Kwame.

Further Reading

Haynes, Jeff. “Ghana: From Personalist to Democratic Rule.” In Democracy and Political Change in Sub-Saharan Africa, edited by John Wiseman. London: Routledge, 1995.

Ninsin, Kwame (ed.). Ghana: Transition to Democracy. Dakar, Senegal: CODESRIA, 1998.

Nugent, Paul. Big Men, Small Boys and Politics in Ghana. London: Pinter, 1995.

Okeke, Barbara E. 4 June: A Revolution Betrayed. Enugu, Nigeria: Ikenga, 1982.

Pinkney, Robert. Democracy and Dictatorship in Ghana and Tanzania. Basingstoke, England: Macmillan, 1997.

Rothchild, Donald (ed.). Ghana: The Political Economy of Recovery. London: Lynne Rienner, 1991.

Shillington, Kevin. Ghana and the Rawlings Factor. Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1992.

Red Sea: See Egypt, Ottoman, 1517-1798: Nubia Slavery: Mediterranean, Red Sea, Indian Ocean.