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Ghana’s Populist Mystic, Jerry Rawlings

Like many leaders throughout Africa, Jerry Rawlings was a paradoxical figure. He could be calculating and ruthless, as when he ordered a bloody “housecleaning” of those he viewed as corrupt or disloyal. Or he could demonstrate genuine concern for the well-being of Ghanaians as he tried to address the country’s myriad problems.

Jerry John Rawlings was a First Lieutenant in the Ghana Air Force when he and six other soldiers tried to stage a coup against the government of General Fred Akuffo in May 1979; they were all arrested and convicted. While awaiting his execution, Rawlings was able to escape with the help of other soldiers on June 4, 1979 and led the overthrow of the Supreme Military Council. He then had a former military president of Ghana executed. He subsequently ruled Ghana until the next election took place in 1981. However, a little more than a year after Hilla Limann was elected, Rawlings staged a second coup d’etat on December 31, 1981, claiming that the government was corrupt and ineffectively managed. He then installed himself as Chairman, and later as President of Ghana. His promises to return Ghana to a democratic system “when the time was ripe” came to fruition when he legalized political parties and reinstated elections in 2001.

The following excerpts from Robert E. Fritts, Ambassador to Ghana from 1983 to 1986, and Raymond C. Ewing, Ambassador from 1989-1992, portray the character of this radical leader following his ascension to power, as well as the “scarf diplomacy” that played a role in improving the relations between Ghana and the United States in the late 1980s.

You can read about the 1986 spy scandal, which Fritts had to respond to. Go here to read about Nelson Mandela, the Ivory Coast’s Felix Houphouët-Boigny, Togo’s Eyadema, and other Moments on Africa. Read about the over-the-top coronation of the man who would be Emperor.


“He was a populist mystic – almost messianic”

Robert E. Fritts, Ambassador to Ghana from 1983 to 1986

FRITTS: Ghana had a very long history of a close relationship with the United States. It was the first country in Africa to become independent, in 1957. It was the first country to receive American Peace Corps Volunteers…

By the time I was preparing to go out, there had been a number of governments in Ghana, often short-lived, led by military generals, and even under occasional parliamentary processes, there had been endemic corruption and malfeasance. That had led to a coup earlier in the year by Flight Lieutenant Jerry Rawlings, who had taken power briefly and then turned it back over to a civilian government. A few months later, in Rawlings’s view, that government had also not measured up, so he staged a second coup on the same grounds as the first. He then executed two previous military presidents and imprisoned the latest elected president.

He was embarked upon a revolution under what was called the Provisional National Defense Council (PNDC). It was radical socialist in its approaches to the country’s economic, social, and political problems. Rawlings saw Libya and Cuba as models. The Soviet Union had rising influence. Rawlings was intrigued by radical revolutionary regimes in Africa and the world….

Rawlings was an enigmatic figure. Over the course of my time there, I got to know him fairly well — to the degree that an official American could and, in truth, far better than any Western ambassador there. He was a populist mystic – almost messianic. He had, as did many African revolutionary leaders, overtones of a prophet. Very nationalistic and patriotic. Quite idealistic, but through an anti-Western lens. Also sincerely desirous, I thought, of improving the lives of ordinary Ghanaians, but the models he then found appealing were Cuba and Libya. And he was feted by Castro and Qadhafi with whom he developed kindred relationships.

His was an unusual personality. There was no normal flow of conversation – a lot of in’s and out’s and elliptical phrases. I sensed he often held back as not trusting what he might say. He was emotional, unpredictable and quick to judge on what I thought poor or limited information. In short, someone to be careful with. I thought how difficult it was for his ministers and staff. They weren’t sure when they might inadvertently offend him. None of them ever said that to me, of course, but I observed their nervous behavior if, for example, asked a question from out of the blue.

He detested forms of Western protocol as being artificial and imposed. That was okay by me, but bent European ambassadors out of shape. For example, he generally would not receive credentials of new ambassadors and was choosy in whom he saw at departure.

Sometimes I’d go to a location to meet him, spend four or five hours waiting around with a couple of ministers, and he wouldn’t show. During the wait, several of his cabinet and security people would bounce in and out using hand-held radios to contact him as he and entourage prowled the night.

He operated a lot at night and was concerned, probably correctly, about counter-coups and assassination. A nighttime curfew was in force and getting home could be risky for us as the police and military at the roadblocks were scared and often fortified their courage with drugs and beer. Because of that, on occasion he’d escort us in his armed vehicle. It scared our guards, but also helped us in the Ghanaian street rumor mill. If he didn’t show, I’d get word several days later of a rescheduled rendezvous.

From the very first, my wife, Audrey, was specifically invited to those sessions. I think it was because Rawlings didn’t quite trust his own reactions and thought a woman’s presence would have a calming influence. He had a sense of obligation towards women and could be quite charming at times – almost boyish. I felt her presence helped facilitate the discussions and also kept some of the potential thugs in check.

After getting back to the residence, Audrey and I would use separate typewriters and write up inputs, which I would combine for my cable report. We would finish about dawn. Audrey’s independent analyses of the meeting and participants were invaluable. Hers was absolutely the kind of contribution Foreign Service spouses make to the conduct of American foreign policy….

By the way, the first meeting did not begin well. He arrived with a full panoply of bodyguards, gun on his hip, telling of having been delayed while attending the execution by firing squad of one of his former military friends who had been convicted — so to speak — of fomenting a counter-coup. Rawlings had personally recorded his last words with a hand tape recorder. In fact, he did it twice as the first time he hadn’t pushed the “On” button.

His interest had been to get a possible deathbed confession of who had previously murdered several Supreme Court justices, but no success. He commented that the condemned man had made a last request that Rawlings look after the man’s widow and children financially. Rawlings said he agreed. That’s when I first noted his colleagues being nervous in his presence.

Q: Sounds like this personalized Rawlings government with a ruling clique would have had the country living in considerable fear.

FRITTS: Fear for some, but just uncertainty for most. Rawlings’ first coup had involved considerable bloodshed in Ghanaian terms, but not much compared to other African countries then and now. As I said, he had executed two of his presidential military predecessors on grounds of corruption and imprisoned the elected president, who had only been in office for several months. The three murdered Supreme Court justices, including a woman, had been found in a forest, their bodies partially burned. Several journalists were murdered or disappeared.

Some scores, official or personal, were settled with an occasional body in the early morning streets. It was relatively mild in African terms….

“He was embarrassed by what Ghana had become”

Naturally we had the usual concerns we had throughout Africa during the Cold War. Under the PNDC, one could anticipate that Ghanaian votes in the United Nations would be primarily with our adversaries. We knew that the climate for American investment was now even worse. There was no rule of law worth much. There were major human rights considerations, because there had been killings and purges and shutting down of a free press. Supreme Court judges had been murdered in suspicious circumstances. We were concerned over an expanding wedge of Russian, Chinese, Libyan and Cuban influences and that Ghana could become a platform to destabilize West Africa….

The idea of radical revolution expanding in Africa and affecting our access to strategic resources and to military bases was all part of Cold War tensions. We also thought that Ghana had a special history and Ghanaians proven skills, which if freed and supported, could reverse its downward economic spiral and create a more open political system. Ghana was thus an integral part of U.S. interests in Africa….

Some of Rawlings’ populist instincts were compatible to degrees with American values. He believed, I think sincerely, that the mass of Ghanaians had not only been exploited by their leaders, but also by their own faults. He believed he was fated to restructure society more equitably. He believed in forms of simplistic participatory democracy. He wanted to improve the lot of the average Ghanaian and restore Ghana to its golden age of immediate post-independence international image.

He was embarrassed by what Ghana had become. The economy was a shambles. There had been years of decreasing GDP. But there had been no mass bloodletting and no inter-tribal atrocities. Ghanaians have a societal sense of decorum and personal respect, which inhibited the worst….

As for Rawlings, I felt many of his concerns were sincere and that over the course of time and experience, he could be brought to welcome progress if packaged appropriately – multilateral, basic human needs, export infrastructure, grass roots projects etc. I thought his humanistic instincts could be directed, not by me probably, but by pragmatics around him. Thus, in Ghana, I saw a chance.

“I think the feeling in the Department about Ghana was more negative than I thought was warranted”

Raymond C. Ewing, Ambassador from 1989-1992

EWING: Jerry Rawlings had seized power on December 31, 1981. He came out of the Air Force, was a Flight Lieutenant, and kept that rank. The government had been formed under the Provisional National Defense Council, the PNDC. It had become somewhat more civilian oriented as time went by. He had always said that, when the time was ripe, Ghana would be returned to a democratic system when the people were ready for that.

At the time I got there, there was no clear indication of when that time would come. Fortunately, it came when I was there. It was exciting to see the process of opening up and liberalizing the system. By the time I left, there were many newspapers being published which were very free and open in their criticism of the government. There was a Consultative Assembly which drafted a new constitution, which was approved and put into effect shortly after I left. Elections took place for both president and vice president and for a Parliament — again, just after I left.

Rawlings was elected President at that time. But, as I say, it was a time when political parties were legalized and became active. It was an exciting time to be there — a very satisfying time, although Ghana did this for lots of reasons and not just interest expressed by the United States or by anybody else. However, it all happened in that period, basically in the 1991-1992 period….

The Cold War was well on its way out. I think that one of the elements that influenced Jerry Rawlings in his decision to allow the country to move to return to a democratic system was looking at what had happened in Eastern Europe. Not so much only the Soviet Union but Romania, East Germany, and so on. I think that he saw that the movement toward a democratic system was pretty prevalent, not only in Eastern Europe. Other countries of Africa and other parts of the world were moving in that direction as well.

He was a very proud person and was very determined that he was not going to do this because the United States or the World Bank told him to. He was going to do it because it was the right thing to do. So it turned out that he was ahead of the curve to some extent and ahead of the pressure. I think that we realized, at least in the Embassy, that hard pressure and threats weren’t going to work with him.

Pointing out some of these trends could have and did have an impact, but I don’t think that we deserved any particular amount of credit for moves in that direction. The Soviet Embassy was there. They had given some assistance to Ghana in the past, but I think that they were essentially a non-factor already by the time I arrived there.

I think that the feeling in the Department, particularly in the African Bureau, about Ghana at the time I went was probably somewhat more negative than I thought was warranted. Negative for several reasons. These included the human rights and political situation. The bureau saw the abuses and the lack of opportunities for self-expression, rather than the potential for positive change. The bureau also continued to be concerned that the Ghanaians in the United Nations and elsewhere were critical of “the West” in general and the United States in particular.

I remember having a discussion with the bureau where I said, “This glass is half full and not half empty, and I’d like to look for opportunities to develop things further and see if there aren’t ways in which we can not only develop our relationship with Ghana but move in the right direction.” I didn’t feel that I was inhibited from trying to do that.

However, I also knew that any time that something would happen, people in Washington would say, “See, we told you so. You can’t trust the Ghanaians.” There was a history of very uneasy relationships which covered the better part of 25 years, going way back to [former president of Ghana Kwame] Nkrumah. During a good part of the subsequent period Ghana had been under military rule — for most of its history since independence, with some exceptions of brief duration. Rawlings was not particularly liked, respected, or admired.

Scarf Diplomacy

There were a couple of things going. One of the things that happened just prior to my going there, early in 1989, occurred at the funeral in Tokyo of Emperor Hirohito.

President Bush, who had been newly inaugurated, had gone to that, as had Jerry Rawlings, who didn’t travel much abroad and didn’t particularly like to go to conferences or ceremonial events. I think that he recognized how important Japan was. Japan was the largest [if not one of the largest] bilateral aid donors to Ghana. Japan had shown a lot of interest and respect for him.

Both President Bush, when I went [to the White House] for a photo opportunity before going to Ghana, and Rawlings soon after I met him for the first time told me essentially the same story. Apparently, one of the events at Emperor Hirohito’s funeral was held outside. It was rather a cold, gray Tokyo day in February. They pulled a curtain or drape or some such thing. The wind really whipped up. President Bush was cold and showed it by pulling his sleeves down. Somebody tapped him on the shoulder. He looked back, and [somebody] recognized [him and told him] that it was somebody from Africa, who offered him a scarf.

President Bush said, “Oh, no, I’m all right.”

The person persisted — and it was Jerry Rawlings.

Finally, [President Bush] took the scarf and wrapped it around him. As he said to me later, “I really felt good. It saved my life,” because it was a bitterly cold day.

President Bush was very appreciative, and the next day he sent the scarf back to Rawlings with a little token or gift — cufflinks or something like that. The Embassy officer who went to deliver the gift, to his surprise was ushered into Rawlings’ suite at the hotel, and they had quite a nice, brief, but cordial conversation. Later, Rawlings wrote a nice, long letter of thanks — certainly, more than would be expected.

He sent along a kente [cloth of interwoven silk and cotton, formerly worn by kings and other people of import], and the White House responded with an equally warm letter of appreciation.

President Bush said to me, “We all know about ‘ping pong’ diplomacy with the Chinese, and I’ve never heard of ‘scarf’ diplomacy but perhaps something can develop with Ghana.”

There is no question that Jerry Rawlings had a certain respect for George Bush, which he really didn’t have for Ronald Reagan. I think that, partly as a result of this and for lots of other reasons, the Ghanaians weren’t going out of their way to take issue with or find fault with the United States. It seemed to me that here was an opportunity, at least in public, to look for ways to see things develop in a positive way. That was the general posture and attitude that I took.

Certainly, there were problems with democratic expression and restrictions on what people could do and say. There were problems of more interest to the United States, such as the banning of the Mormon Church and Jehovah’s Witnesses. There was the arrest and detention of a dual American-Ghanaian citizen for the better part of a year. All of these were problems that we worked hard on and which eventually were resolved.

I think that, overall, our relationship did improve during the time that I was there. Our assistance level went up considerably, and Ghana improved measurably, both in terms of its economy and its political system.