Friday Giant 1: Jerry Rawlings

J. J. Rawlings As this blog is in large part an exercise in reflexivity, I’m going to be riffing off a friendly Giants’ fan and making a regular feature of Friday posts talking about people I find significant, or who others find significant. My goal is to identify the giants I have chosen to perch on, the causes for and implications of those choices, and thus to examine the more general issue of how our choice of heroes can change the world. I grew up in Ghana, in West Africa, during the 1980s and early 1990s. During that 16-year period the nation underwent enormous challenges, and responded to them with remarkable changes. The Big Man in Ghana from 1981 to 2000 was, indisputably, Jerry John Rawlings. He stands alongside Kwame Nkrumah as the Founding Fathers of Ghanaian nationhood, and he came to power in a military coup. He repaired Ghana’s economy, but he also conducted purges, executed rivals and caused disappearances. He launched Ghana’s modern democracy and he retired when the constitution told him to. He materially affected how my understanding of politics and world affairs developed, and he helped found a remarkable young nation.

Feet of Clay

No question, Rawlings has them. He’s ambitious; he’s aggressive in pursuit of tactical goals, he came to power in two military coups d’etat and he once got a lot of Western press for punching a Cabinet minister in session. Fewer westerners noticed that the relevant Cabinet minister neither resigned nor protested, and gave a famous interview on Ghanaian radio where he said Rawlings had acted ‘properly’. Impressively, even Rawlings’ authorized hagiography recognises his illegitimate status as a mutineer and military dictator, mentions human rights abuses from the 80s, and covers the accusations that Rawlings cheated in 1992. The various other profiles on him follow the pattern, though with a bit less positive spin than his vanity-site bio.

Personal Politics

In a village market-place in the Mamprusi territories in 1992, a crowd of noisy people are waiting for something to happen. Eventually, a dusty (and quite short) convoy of Pajeros draws up, and a big, cranky man in signature aviator shades climbs out, accompanied by his wife and a few aides. The drivers disappear into a shady corner to smoke, play cards and palavar ’til they’re needed. The Big Man greets the Chief, greets the elders, and then pulls a pose. The crowd quiets down, and he starts to speak. Actually, he starts to rant. He’s energetic, hands waving in sharp, large movements. And he’s remarkably direct. These roads up here? They’re terrible. I just drove here three hours, my back hurts, I’m angry, I’m tired. How did no-one know that the roads in the North are so bad? Well now we know. And when I get back to Accra…

If all Tip O’Neil’s politics was local, in the Ghanaian transition to democracy, all politics was tribal. Not in the destructive sense we associate with African nations; Ghana has been remarkably free of tribal conflict. No, this was about slaves.

Ghanaians have a more complex relationship with the slave trade than liberal white guilt is inclined to allow them. The first slave castle in Ghana, El Mina, was built as an import facility: Portuguese, then Dutch, then British, selling mine slaves from elsewhere in Africa to the Ashanti. Yes, the coastal tribes (Ga, some Ewe, and so on) remember direct colonial slavery, but to most of the rest of the 69 tribes in Ghana? They remember that once the trade was established, the Ashanti empire raided their villages and made it an export trade. Because the Ashanti, once subdued, were good viceroys for centralised colonial power, Britain followed their standard operating procedure and administered Ghana largely through them. That cemented a general Ghanaian dynamic which set the North, West and Volta tribes against the Ashanti politicians of the south. When their experiment in democracy began, the main opposition to military-dictator Rawlings arose from two parties dominated by Ashanti; one a cabinet minister, one an academic from the University at which my father sometimes lectured.

They came from the south; they campaigned in the south, on the issues of the urbanising, industrialising south. Rawlings got his middle-aged arse into a jeep and drove it round the northern regions, shaking hands and shouting. In the process, the agenda for his first term in office was radically redefined; after a decade of industrial and export policy re-engineering focussed mostly around the south and the cocoa plantations in the Volta, the government of Ghana was about to throw very significant weight into a highways program.

Pretty much everyone except the losing team judged Ghana’s first elections free and fair. And their second ones. Each time, Rawlings and his party won by effectively leveraging real concern for the North against an Ashanti-dominated opposition, and by effectively supporting Rawlings’ personal popularity among Ghanaians who had seen the economy improve, the roads improve, the introduction of a useful telephony infrastructure, and significant changes in individual standard of living, all associated personally with Rawlings.


When the Big Man stepped down, his defeated opponent from ’96 won the Presidency, and the two main parties have been trading power peacefully ever since. Rawlings recruited and groomed a young economist from a previous administration, who went on from his service to Ghana to serve as Secretary of the United Nations. Rawlings has played a growing role in regional diplomacy since his retirement from active Gahanaian politics, and has recently been appointed AU representative in Somalia. A flawed giant? No doubt. But a giant to Ghanaians, and to me, for displaying one of the rarest qualities in African politics; the willingness to govern for Ghana more than he governed for himself.


1 Response to “Friday Giant 1: Jerry Rawlings”

  1. 1 Helen 06/03/2013 at 11:44 am

    Fascinating and very readable. This makes me want to read the rest of your book about Ghanaian politics :)

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February 2013
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Per Argument Ad Astra

Politics, history, economics and rampant speculation from a victim of the Great Recession, currently at large in the West Midlands.

"When the regulation, therefore, is in favour of the workmen, it is always just and equitable; but it is sometimes otherwise when in favour of the masters."
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