Ghanians flock to see Jerry Rawlings, former leader
Accra, Ghana — "Un-Ghanaian" is a word often heard in this capital city these days, and it is a symptom of a national malaise. Ghanaians are acutely conscious that their reputation as Africa's friendliest, most hospitable people has slipped lately.
So they converse about the high robbery rate, abut the lack of cocoa or tea or coffee, to offer visitors, about the prices that drive people to cheat, hoard , and trade on the black market, about the seeming lack of willingness to be helpful to one another any more -- and label all these things "un-Ghanaian."
And they flock to see Flight Lt. J. J. Rawlings, the charismatic young man who, however fleetingly, seemed to restore their sense of themselves as a people.
But today Jerry Rawlings is angry. The flashing smile that elicits cheers whenever he makes a public appearance is nowhere in evidence.
Sitting at ease in a room darkened against the harsh West African sun, his long legs akimbo, he looks more like a college basketball player than the head of state he (briefly) was.
When he begins to talk, though, it is possible to glimpse the forceful personality that catapulted him, at the age of 33, from a prison cell to chairmanship of the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council (AFRC) which ruled Ghana for 3 1/2 months last summer before handing power to an elected civilian government.
In an interview, Lieutenant Rawlings talked of his increasing frustration in the face of Ghana's worsening economic plight and a government he charged cannot -- or will not -- halt the slide of a once-prosperous nation into bankruptcy and despair. Inflation is estimated to be above 100 percent annually, and the shortages, bureaucratic ineptitude, and corruption that have characterized life in Ghana in recent years are widely reported to be as bad as ever.
As Mr. Rawlings sees it, a ruling elite that has failed to institute reforms or win public support in the seven months since the AFRC disbanded is trying to discredit former AFRC leaders whose popularity it perceives as a threat.
"We can talk about all kinds of gains of June 4," he said, referring to the day last year when a group of junior officers overthrew the military government of Gen. Frederick W. K. Akuffo. "But for me the biggest gain is intangible, a psychological gain. Somehow or other we've shown that you can be a master of your own destiny.
"If an attempt should be make to concretize a thing like this, it's obviously not going to be in the interest of the dominant group," he continued."They've got to find some ways and means of destroying the dream, making it seem like a nightmare, making it seem unreal, unattainable."
The latest such attempt, Mr. Rawlings said, had come just that morning, in the form of a screaming front-page headline in the conservative newspaper Palaver, accusing him of having 100,000 Ghanaian cedis in cash -- or $250,000. The article said the government had given Mr. Rawlings the money, plus a car and house as a "resettlement," following his "voluntary retirement from the Armed Forces."
In his visible outrage over the story, which he dismissed as "vicious lies," Mr. Rawlings appeared less concerned with his personal reputation than with the image of the AFRC, whose honesty he saw as a symbol ordinary people "were holding onto."
"This was clearly a revolt that was generated in the interest of the common man," he said. " OK, it has certain symbols, like me, or June 4, or the military, for that matter. So attempts are being made to malign us."
The former airman expressed the wish that, rather than attempting to isolate him, the new government had put him to work. He said he specifically requested a position dealing with agriculture, where he could have worked directly with farmers to increase production. Agriculture is Ghana's most important economic sector.
Instead, he said, he was forced into retirement, hearing about his dismissal on the radio.
"The sad thing," he lamented, "is that the supposed progressives of the PNP [ People's National Party, the ruling party] aren't doing something dynamic" to lift Ghana out of its morass. "Tempers are building up more and more. People are drinking water for lunch."
"Someone was asking me whether [the leaders] don't know it, they don't feel it, they don't see it. Me, I think the answer lies in this: They see it, they know it. But they don't see it as a condition that the worker cannot tolerate any more.
"What they don't see is that they've not been able to satisfy the pangs of hunger in the worker's stomach this year. For a brief period we [in the AFRC] were able to do a thing like this. Not because we were able to produce any extra food, but we insured that all those hoarded items came out to be sold at controlled prices."
In the 12 months since Jerry Rawlings' military comrades released him from the jail cell where he was thrown after an earlier unsuccessful uprising, he has come to view the workers in Ghana's factories, fields, and forests as the wave of the future.
"If they can have enough confidence in themselves to realize the potential wealth that exists within each and every one of them, however low a menial worker," he said, "nothing is going to stop them. The only thing that's holding the workers right now is that it hasn't dawned on them that the soldiers would not allow themselves to be used against workers any more."
Mr. Rawlings was not always cynical about Ghana's return to civilian rule; in fact, his military government ignored numerous appeals from citizens' groups when it so quickly held elections and went back to the barracks. He occupied himself with community cleanups and health and legal-aid clinics. and his friends say he genuinely believed that President Hilla Limann and his Cabinet could overcome the disadvantage of having to assume power in a country confronting such staggering problems.
Ghanaians, Mr. Rawlings argued, are intelligent people, who if treated like human beings would react like human beings. Nobody expected Ghana's problems would be easy to solve, he said, but people were eager to tackle them.
"That's one of the finest things we ever gave to this govvernment -- an almost explosive momentum on a silver platter. And turned it over to them to be used. The people, the masses, weren't expecting a penny for it, were going to use their own labor now, prepared to make sacrifices for their own good. But this government, the PNP, couldn't measure up to the mood, the expectations. It betrayed them."
Government officials insist that Jerry Rawlings was able to retain his popularity only because he relinquished power before having to face the country's difficult, long-term problems, that he naively overestimates the public capacity for patience and understanding.
And, indeed, people in the streets do speak of the brief rule of the AFRC as a sort of Camelot, a time when all things were possible. But the Rawlings supporters -- while pointing out the concrete moves against corruption and inefficiency that led to immediate material improvements during AFRC rule -- echo the Rawlings view that the coup's major accomplishment was to revive people's spirits and mobilize their energies.
That ability is something the former AFRC leader still possesses. In some of Mr. Rawlings' recently resumed public appearances, crowds have wedged themselves in so tightly that windows have had to be broken so those in the middle of the crush could get enough air.
All this has not made Jerry Rawlings exuberant; public passions worry rather than buoy him. He sees Ghana today as a modern morality play, with a tragic ending.
"It's coming," he said. "It's on the horizon. The danger here is that this time it's not just going to be an ordinary revolt, it's going to be anarchy -- what June 4 attempted to preempt. we forced people to drown their anger, their temper, their animosity. It wasn't dissipated. It was taken back inside, contained. So the next time it comes out, it's going to be worse."
He rubbed his eyes, remembering the executions of eight former leaders that earned the AFRC an international reputation for bloodthirstiness, even while AFRC leaders were appealing to their compatriots to be charitable with the many officials and entrepreneurs who were widely regarded as criminals.
When he spoke again, his voice was strong, unhesitant. "So this time, there'll be no going back. And nobody's going to stand on any platform saying, 'Peace, hold it, brothers.'
"If it's going to cost so much for the liberation of the majority, for the people of this country to eat -- so be it, let it happen."