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Jerry Rawlings, Ghana's unlikely democrat, dies at 73

By Agencies | November 13th 2020 at 00:00:00 GMT +0300

Former president of Ghana John Jerry Rawlings delivers a speech as he attends the national day in tribute to former Burkina Faso president Thomas Sankara in Ouagadougou on October 2, 2016. [AFP PHOTO / AHMED OUOBA]

Jerry Rawlings, who seized power twice in military coups but is now credited as a driving force behind Ghana’s emergence as a stable democracy, died yesterday aged 73, a source at the presidency said.

His takeovers in 1979 and 1981 were marked by authoritarian rule and the executions of senior military officers, including General Frederick Akuffo, whom he overthrew in the first coup.

But Rawlings went on to oversee Ghana’s transition to multi-party democracy, winning election in 1992 and 1996 before stepping down in 2001.

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Today, Ghana is considered one of West Africa’s most mature democracy and regularly sees power change hands between its two main parties.

A presidential election is scheduled for December 7 between incumbent Nana Akufo-Addo, main challenger John Mahama, Akufo-Addo’s predecessor whom he defeated at the polls in 2016, and other smaller party candidates.

The source at the presidency said Rawlings died yesterday morning, but provided no further details.

Rawlings first came to power in the 1979 coup when he was an air force lieutenant. He transferred power to civilian rule soon after but then led another coup two years later, decrying government’s corruption and weak leadership.

From 1981 to 1993, he ruled as chairman of a joint military-civilian government. In 1992 he was elected president under a new constitution, taking up that office the following year.

As president, he liberalised Ghana’s economy, encouraging investment in the country’s oil and gold sectors.

In 2001, he handed over power to John Kufour of the opposition party who had defeated Rawlings’ vice president in the previous year’s election.

After stepping down, Rawlings remained a power broker in Ghanian politics while serving in various international diplomatic posts, including as the African Union’s representative in Somalia.

The charismatic leader was active on social media and on Sunday tweeted congratulatory message to US President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris.

"Congratulations to President-Elect @JoeBiden and Vice President-Elect @KamalaHarris. The world is expectant as a new era of United States leadership dawns. We look forward to the leadership that embraces unity, compassion and maturity." 

He also commented on the recent disputed elections in Guinea, saying the numerous lives being lost on account of the regime trying to extend its stay in office, is grossly unacceptable.

"Guinea’s President Alpha Conde must do better to protect the people and deliver their mandate," Rawlings tweeted.

After visiting the resting place of the late President Atta Mills in July, Rawlings tweeted that he had differences and misgivings over his Presidency on matters related to serious cases of corruption and killings in the administration but noted "Mills that I knew and worked with as my VP was an outstanding personality. I pray his soul rests in peace."

Rawlings founded the National Democratic Congress (NDC) and launched on a populist programme of reforms including the establishment of workers committees inspired by Cold War superpower the Soviet Union and its ally Cuba.

But the moves failed to stem the financial woes and the leader changed tack to more conservative free-market measures that eventually bolstered Ghana's economy to one of Africa's best performing by the 1990s. 

In 1992, Rawlings won Ghana's first election since 1979 in a one-sided vote where he held all the cards and went on to claim a second term in 1996 before relinquishing power for the last time in 2001. 

He then saw the country led by the rival New Patriotic Party (NPP) until 2008, when his former deputy John Atta Mills was elected on behalf of the NDC.

Rawlings was widely reported to have been frustrated by the leadership of Mills, who died in 2012, in part because the top brass of the NDC were not always willing to go along with his plans.

But he remained a high-profile figure in Ghanaian politics and his wife Nana Konadu Rawlings tried but failed to launch her own bid for the presidency in 2011. 

Her campaign led to speculation over whether the former coup leader turned president was seeking to restore what some saw as his waning influence by a variety of means.

Rawlings, however, continued to remain respected in the NDC although he has had frosty relations with John Mahama, who was president between 2012 and 2017 and is currently looking to unseat incumbent Nana Akufo-Addo in elections this December. [Reuters and AFP]

Jerry Rawlings Ghana General Frederick Akuffo
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