Ghana coup: 'Mr. Clean' sets standard for Africa on corruption

The man who is the ''Mr. Clean'' of West Africa to many of his fellow Ghanaians has seized power for the second time in 2 1/2 years to rid his country (he says) of corruption.

He is former Flight Lt. Jerry Rawlings, still in his early 30s.

Mr. Rawlings's success or failure in Ghana could have repercussions in Africa far beyond that country's borders, especially among those of his own generation.

Nigeria and Sierra Leone -- English-speaking countries, like Ghana, with corruption problems of their own -- will be watching what happens in Ghana with particular concern.

This is because Mr. Rawlings, in pledging to tackle corruption, is meeting head-on one of the two main causes of blighted hopes in most of the sub-Saharan African countries that gained independence from the mid-1950s onward.

The other main cause of the frustration of expectations in many of these countries has been tribal or ethnic rivalries within the artificial national boundaries bequeathed by the European colonial powers.

At the outset of independence, Ghana had problems with such rivalries. But in recent years, it has been corruption that dragged Ghana down.

Mr. Rawlings's latest coup Dec. 31 ousted civilian President Hilla Limann, whose election and installation he had allowed in 1979. In that year, then-Flight Lieutenant Rawlings seized power from senior Army officers who had governed Ghana for seven years.

He held the reins for only 112 days, honoring a pledge given by the senior officers to return the country to civilian rule. During this brief period, he was near-fanatical in his denunciation of corruption, not least among the military leadership he had displaced. He executed three former military heads of state and five other people accused of corruption - presumably partly as a warning to Dr. Limann.

In a broadcast on Accra radio Jan. 2 this year, Mr. Rawlings described the Limann administration as ''the most disgraceful in the country's history.''

He announced that: Dr. Limann and his vice-president had been dismissed, parliament dissolved, the Constitution suspended, and the Council of State and all political parties abolished.

Power, he said, was now in the hands of a Provisional National Defense Council.

His aim, he added, was to enable the active participation of the people in formulating policy and to give Ghana a disciplined economy.

Two days earlier, announcing the coup, he said: ''I ask for nothing less than a revolution -- something that will transform the economic and social order of this country.''

Communications between Ghana and the outside world have been cut since the coup. It is still not known who makes up the Provisional National Defense Council or what groups rallied to Mr. Rawlings's side in the coup. There was apparently some violence initially. Accra radio reported Jan. 1 that there had been looting and ''barbaric acts'' by some soldiers - allegedly egged on by members of the outgoing regime.

Two things probably caused Mr. Rawlings to strike now: mounting corruption and President Limann's perceived ineffectiveness as a national and a party leader.

The deposed President's party, the People's National Party (PNP), has been in the throes of a power struggle for many weeks. This pitted Dr. Limann against an old guard from the defunct Convention People's Party of Ghana's first president after independence, the late Kwame Nkrumah.

Dr. Limann seemed to be losing this struggle, which was producing allegations of outrageous corruption at the top. For example, a former PNP national chairman and a former PNP general secretary were said to have received $1.5 million and $ 11,000-to-$18,000 a month, respectively, as contributions to the party - and then appropriated it without informing the national treasurer. Another top PNP official allegedly received a $1 million commission on a currency printing contract.

Recent reports in West Africa, a weekly magazine, indicate corruption and bribery seeping down to a much lower level.

In one locality, the police would not let truck drivers take produce to market without getting a commission. At a hospital in another place, blood for transfusions was being sold on the black market for from $90 to $145 a pint.

In a public speech reported in the Dec. 21-28 edition of West Africa, F.W.A. Akuffo, president of the African Youth Command, said Ghanaian society was becoming more and more rotten because nobody was able to survive without breaking the law.

Two statistics bespeak Ghana's plight under Dr. Limann: The country lost its position as the world's biggest cocoa producer; it is now in third place. And between July 1980 to July 1981, inflation leaped to 106.6 percent a year. Over the preceding 12-month period, it had run at only 20.6 a year.

The deposed President's party has been in a power struggle for weeks which pitted Dr. Limann against an old guard from the defunct Convention People's Party of Ghana's first president after independence, the late Kwame Nkrumah.

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