Former Ghanaian President Jerry Rawlings passed away on November 12, 2020. After governing his country between 1981 and 2000, he stepped down after regular elections. His tenure was marked by a ruthless and effective fight against corruption and the rebuilding of the country’s democratic institutions. His memory has been widely acclaimed on the African continent for his reputation for integrity and respect for democracy. Pressenza took stock with Amzat Boukari-Yabara, historian and pan-Africanist activist.

Interview by Olivier Flumian

In what context and under what conditions did Rawlings come to power?

After the overthrow of Kwame Nkrumah [1] in 1966, Ghana experienced a period of political-military instability with major economic and social crises. President Nkrumah’s two great adversaries, Kofi Busia and Edward Akufo-Addo succeeded each other in power until 1972, when General Acheampong overthrew the father of the current head of state, Nana Akufuo-Addo. Six years later, in July 1978, a palace revolution overthrew Acheampong and promised a return to constitutional order. It was in this context that Flight Lieutenant Jerry Rawlings decided to lead a putsch to seize power on June 4, 1979.

Rawlings was born to a Scottish father and a Ghanaian mother, trained at Achimota College and enlisted in the Air Force in 1967 at the age of twenty. He is at the head of a group of soldiers who really want to put an end to the corruption and embezzlement that contributes to the illegal enrichment of senior officers and politicians. During a military trial where he was tried for an attempted
putsch, Rawlings had already expressed his willingness to put himself at the service of the people and to attack the kleptocracy. At the head of a revolutionary council of the armed forces, he is committed to a policy of social justice that worries a large part of the economic and political elite. The context in which he came to power was, therefore, that of a deep moral crisis in Ghana and the need to rebuild the country’s values.

Rawlings won the support of a large part of the people and promised to make a peaceful transition to constitutional rule as planned. This will be done with the election of President Limann and the establishment of the Third Republic. However, the power is falling back in its shortcomings. In reality, knowing that the military would return power to the civilians, Rawlings does not accept the idea that the civilians were already thinking about how they would share the wealth.

On the night of December 31, 1981, Rawlings decided to take back the power to transform Ghana this time. The putsch of June 1979, which had given the old system a last chance to regain control, was transformed into a revolution on December 31, 1981, with the establishment of Committees for the Defense of the Revolution, based on the Cuban model, people’s courts and a population framework. Former presidents and leaders implicated in numerous corruption scandals were condemned and executed. The revolution he wants to lead is both political and moral.

He is credited with leaving his country a solid democratic functioning, what about it?

Rawlings was a military man, he seized power by force, in an undemocratic manner, being hostile to party logic. In Ghana, he may be the equivalent of a de Gaulle for France or a Chavez for Venezuela, that is, a military man who takes responsibility and decides to clean up his act to put an end to party instability and ideological corruption. In the context of the time, there was not much possibility of imposing a break with power under the influence of the army. While calling for participatory democracy at the grassroots level, Rawlings will reshape the Ghanaian political landscape with his party, the National Democratic Congress (NDC) challenging Adu Boahen’s New Patriotic Party (NPP) and the People’s National Convention (PNC). The dominant parties are taking advantage of Rawlings’ emergence to regroup into an opposition and pave the way for a bipolarization of the political system.

Rawlings rejuvenates the political landscape, decentralizes administration and strengthens national unity. Young people, but also women, motivated by First Lady Nana Konadu Rawlings’ commitment to the December 31 Women’s Movement, are at the heart of politics. Members of the middle classes, entrepreneurs, intellectuals, executives and traders are all invited to take part in the national effort. Rawlings heals the wounds of the country, while maintaining an authoritarian style and taking care not to challenge the traditional powers and the oligarchy head-on.

Rawlings put in place the 1992 Constitution, which is still in force in Ghana, serves as a democratic guarantee and accompanies his first election as a civilian president. In 1992, Rawlings emerged as a concrete democrat. He does not run on promises. He already has an economic record that speaks in his favor and he is changing the vision of the country, the vision of Ghanaians and Ghana. He is the man of economic stability and he wants to be the man of political stability. He is therefore elected with 58.4% of the votes. To get out of the exceptional regime, he set up in 1993 an Electoral Commission which is autonomous and independent of presidential power. This was in response to the opposition parties’ contestation of his 1992 victory, which had denounced fraud.

In 1996, he was re-elected with 57.4% of the vote and his party, the National Democratic Congress (NDC), won a majority with 133 seats out of 200. His re-election was a sign of real popular support, even if the opposition did not share the same opinion. Above all, Rawlings shows that he loves the country and the people more than he loves power. This is what allows him to win in the electoral debate against his rival John Kufuor. He clearly announces that his term will be his last, which is very interesting. He gives to his conception of political power the same rigorous and scrupulous turn that he had given to the economic management of public affairs. This does not mean that there were no scandals or political crises. But given the state in which he took over Ghana in the early 1980s, he leaves a country transformed and mature twenty years later.

What was its position on economic and social issues in the era of neo-liberalism?

This is a very interesting point because Rawlings came to power on the eve of the launch of structural adjustment programs. In 1979, he wanted to control market prices, fight against corruption and the detour of aid, whether material or financial. His policy, therefore, went against the intermediaries and all the rentier categories who lived on the realization of margins and profits on the backs of the people and the workers. At the same time, by asking to lower local market prices, Rawlings confronts the peasants and producers who must ensure a minimum rate of profitability. It should be added that Rawlings, as a military man, was very badly regarded by foreign investors and international institutions also because of his inflammatory speeches.

Where there is an interesting paradox is the way he thinks about the question of liberalism and socialism. We have seen that Rawlings takes power with a desire to clean up a country plagued by corruption. For him, the primary economic value is therefore not profit but morality, ethics, honesty. The accounts must be justified, clean and settled. The principle of debt cannot be accepted for questions of honor and accountability. Rawlings considers, somewhat like his Tanzanian socialist counterpart Julius Nyerere, that money does not make development. It is possible to invest billions of dollars in Ghana, but if the leaders do not have an ethic of accountability, it will be useless. In a way, Rawlings is laying the foundations for what will be somewhat mythically called “good governance”. It was because he realized that this habit was still not in place that he returned to power on December 31, 1981, disappointed by President Limann’s chaotic management of the accounts.

Another element concerns precisely his approach to socialism. Rawlings had a mixed relationship with trade unions and workers, but he did not have a dogmatic approach. Marxists and liberals could be found in his entourage when the structural adjustment programs were officially launched in April 1983. Rawlings scrupulously followed the guidelines of the IMF (International Monetary Fund) and the World Bank, which would make Ghana one of their success stories. In an interview, Rawlings explains that the IMF and the World Bank imposed terrible conditions on him, but history must give him credit for having managed to thwart the diabolical trap of neoliberalism. One might think that Rawlings saw the IMF’s methods as a way of carrying out the economic purges he wanted to carry out but could not assume without making himself unpopular: market and trade liberalization, privatization, devaluation, tax increases, drastic cuts in education and health budgets, regulation of public services.…

Rawlings follows the IMF and the World Bank, but Ghana is holding its own by choosing to redirect savings to building infrastructure, modernizing cities and rural areas, raising wages, and creating jobs. Ghana relies on a merchant population that is present throughout West Africa, which also suffers the repercussions of the Ivorian and Nigerian economies, which are reflected in the expulsion of nationals. The nylon bag most used in West Africa is called “Ghana must go” because it refers to the bags in which Ghanaians expelled from Nigeria in 1983 had put all their belongings.

Rawlings will take social issues into account by validating a program specifically dedicated to regulating the social costs of structural adjustment. The State has therefore not abandoned the population. In the 1980s, the growth rate, which had been negative, rose to more than 5%. GDP increases, inflation is high but then gradually declines. The State continues its public investments, devoting 10 to 15% of its GDP to it. Technically speaking, the country is recovered and Rawlings validates a recovery policy based on investments that serve the population: good schools, good health centers, drinking water and electricity networks… Once the economy is back on track, Rawlings can commit to reopening the political side by being elected in 1992 and re-elected in 1996, with a democratic model that seems solid but that will weigh on the public accounts. Indeed, a return to democratic order means a return to old practices such as the misappropriation of public funds to finance the political system and elections.

The economic crisis is coming back under the democratic period, particularly in connection with the backlash of structural adjustments. Growth slows down, demographics increase, the labor market is affected, inflation resumes, interest rates rise, the Cedi currency devalues and Rawlings must go on the offensive again with a new approach. Make Ghana a model country by relying on the import-export sectors, extractive industries such as gold and timber, and services. On this last point, tourism is the sector that has been steadily growing, thanks in large part to the efforts of African-Americans who are developing a whole branch of memorable and pan-Africanist tourism. Rawlings is also looking to the United States and Asian countries to accompany the industrialization of the country. When he left power, he left a country with many strings to its bow and an interesting palette of liberal-inspired economic policies with nevertheless a consideration of social impacts.

He was often presented as a pan-African figure, what was his real contribution to the project of African unity?

First of all, Rawlings did a lot for Ghana, which is the country of Kwame Nkrumah, the father of pan-Africanism. On the image, it is very important that Ghana is a presentable, admirable, developed and autonomous country. A country in good standing with an educated population, good universities, an open social and cultural life, preserved African traditions, and openness to the world. Rawlings comes after leaders who have all gone against the Nkrumah policy. The debate over whether he was Nkrumahist would take too long to address, but Rawlings has been involved in the rehabilitation of Nkrumah and has maintained a space for Pan-Africanism in Ghana. Although politically, things are more complex.

Then Rawlings was very close to Thomas Sankara, the young Burkinabe president. It was this closeness that did not please the neighboring leaders, Gnassingbé Eyadéma of Togo and especially Félix Houphouët-Boigny of Côte d’Ivoire. Ghana’s foreign policy will always take into account continental issues and the country remains, under his leadership, one of the preferred destinations of the African diaspora, particularly African-American and the Caribbean. On the ground, Rawlings has supported liberation movements in Angola, Mozambique and against apartheid in South Africa. After his retirement from power, he continued to work on behalf of African youth, never hesitating to sponsor initiatives, including chairing the Thomas Sankara Memorial Committee.

In the end, what assessment for Ghana and for the continent can we draw from his twenty years as president of his country?

Rawlings spent 20 years in power. He lived twenty years as a former president. He created a political climate and culture that made all former presidents live quietly in Ghana. All the Ghanaian political crises were resolved among Ghanaians. Rawlings’ personality and political longevity are therefore important elements in understanding the impact he represents both for his country and for Africa as a role model. Forty years is four times as long as Kwame Nkrumah remains the major political figure in Ghana and all of Africa, but it is enough to make him a pillar of African political history. One only has to look at how his demise became a debate during the last presidential election to understand that Rawlings’ legacy needs to be preserved but also taught to prevent a backlash.


[1] Kwame Nkrumah is the father of the independence of Ghana, the first state in sub-Saharan Africa to gain independence in 1957. Under the name of Gold Coast, the country had been governed by the British since the end of the 19th century. Nkrumah governed Ghana as Prime Minister until 1960 and then as President of the Republic until 1966. Throughout his career, he never ceased to work for his pan-African ideal and for the unity of the continent.

Translation by Magali Sette, from the voluntary Pressenza translation team. We are looking for volunteers!