Early on November 12, retired major Henry Smith called me from London to tell me that his former comrade and friend, Flight Lieutenant Jerry John Rawlings had died. Rawlings lived many lives, transforming from idealistic young Air Force pilot to imprisoned coup-plotter to chairman of two revolutionary military governments to champion of neoliberal reform and president of Ghana’s 4th Republic, before peacefully handing over power in 2001.
I had gotten to know Rawlings over several years after he graciously allowed me to do a series of interviews for a book on the revolutionary era in Ghana. I was disturbed to read the international coverage of his passing, which was not only riddled with factual errors but told a simplistic story of a stereotypic autocratic African military ruler.
Rawlings was the transcendent African political figure of his generation. His complex story reveals the grand political transformations of the late twentieth century and the ongoing significance of 1970s global geopolitics. Even as he led his nation across several political eras, Rawlings maintained a lifelong passion for alleviating the suffering of the nation’s and the continent’s most needy citizens. He was one of the last radical 1970s heads of state, and one of the few who lived to old age. Most revolutionaries of that era died in exile or, like Maurice Bishop in Grenada and Thomas Sankara in Burkina Faso, were killed as they challenged the West and experimented with new forms of governance.
As news of his sudden death spread in Ghanaian circles, a flood of memories of successes, traumas, and violent repression came pouring out from the general public as well as key political actors who had supported and opposed him in shaping Ghana in the 1970s and ’80s.
“Leave My Men Alone”
Rawlings, born in 1947, was of the generation that came of age around Ghana’s 1957 independence. Ongoing Cold War struggles, opposition to white rule in southern Africa, the Algerian Revolution, and the Nigeria-Biafra civil war all shaped the worldview of politically minded Ghanaians. He was part of Accra’s aspiring cosmopolitan scene, where young men and women — as in cities across the continent — blended counterculture and black pride, highlife, soul, R&B, and Afrobeat music, and the latest fashions with an anti-imperial sensibility.
In this context, uprisings became common. They could be vehicles for foreign manipulation or the means by which voiceless young critics of neocolonialism experimented with the promises of freedom. Around Africa, coups became so frequent that, as Chinua Achebe joked to me once, radio stations like the Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation established ritual protocols and set music for when rebel soldiers arrived to make overthrow proclamations.
In the late 1960s, Henry Smith, a young munitions officer and socialist, brought Rawlings, a young Air Force fighter pilot, into the Free Africa Movement (FAM), organized by journalist-turned-infantry officer Major Kojo Boakye Djan (Rtd). A clandestine group of officers and intellectuals that discussed Marx, Mao, and Guevara and listened to LPs of Malcolm X speeches, FAM planned to launch a coup in ten years, when the rising officers had achieved senior positions. Their aim was to spark a series of uprisings around Africa and realize Ghana independence leader Kwame Nkrumah’s vision of a politically unified continent.
As the Ghanaian economy stagnated in the mid-1970s, there were strikes, food and commodity shortages, hoarding, and black market price hikes. Rawlings noted the growing resentment among the masses and grew impatient with long-term planning. “All Boakye Djan did was talk … he was never going to act,” he recalled. “People were hungry…. Most officers could not see it, but I saw there was anger in the men’s eyes.”
Rawlings began organizing his own alternative network, estimating that he tried twelve times to launch a coup. On May 15, 1979, he led a handful of Air Force men in what he later explained was more an attempt to spark action against corruption and suffering than a take-over. The conspirators were arrested after surrendering.
At Rawlings’s public treason trial, prosecutors highlighted his concern with inequality and exploitation, and newspaper and radio accounts quoted Rawlings as having said “leave my men alone” when they were arrested. The media portrait of Rawlings as a self-sacrificial hero transformed him overnight into national celebrity. And his imminent martyrdom at the hands of the state sparked the soldiers’ anger.
Before dawn on June 4, Air Force and 5th Battalion soldiers started an uprising in the barracks and broke Rawlings out of jail. The nation’s future changed at 6 AM that morning, when Rawlings gave an improvised speech live on the radio, breathless after running five hundred meters to Ghana Broadcasting House.
In those days, radio was the main medium for communication. That Monday, instead of the early morning news, Rawlings’s voice entered the houses, markets, and offices of the nation, declaring, “The ranks have just gotten me out of my jail cell … They have taken over the destiny of the nation.”
Crucially, he did not say he was in charge of the country, as would be typical of a coup announcement, but rather proclaimed that the future was uncertain. He said that the rampaging soldiers were angry, “full of malice that we have put into them” and that a moral reckoning was coming. Radios crackled as he shouted into the microphone and banged his fist on the table.
One teenager recalls listening from his family house. “When I heard his voice that first time, the hair on the back of my neck stood up. We all ran outside to see what was happening.”
“This Is Not a Coup”
While Rawlings neither planned nor fought in the insurrection, he was perfectly cast to play the hero who could unite a fractured public. He was a natural performer attuned to the power of spectacle — lean, muscular, and handsome, wearing his neat Afro, scruffy beard, and aviator sunglasses with the hypermasculine swagger of a film star. The progeny of a Gold Coast Anlo-Ewe mother and Scottish father, he appeared cosmopolitan to working people and enigmatic to more established families.
Rawlings was made chairman of the new Armed Forces Revolutionary Council (AFRC). He pledged to maintain the schedule for upcoming democratic elections and the handover to a civilian government, but said they would first oversee “housecleaning” exercises to purge the nation of indiscipline and corruption.
The young officers and soldiers, however, were only tenuously in control as they struggled to contain violence they had released. As one student at the time told me, “June 4 unleashed the worst in Ghanaians. The violence was traumatic … but … people have to remember we were suffering and had nothing to lose…. People who now do not want to admit it were calling for blood.”
On June 16 and June 26, the AFRC executed eight military leaders including three former heads of state by firing squad. Students and workers continued to march in the streets, calling for more sacrifices, chanting “Let the Blood Flow!” “We were riding the back of a tiger,” Rawlings said.
After three months, the AFRC handed power over to the newly elected 3rd Republic with a warning to the new president, Dr Hilla Limann, that the soldiers would be watching. While most AFRC members were sent abroad, intellectuals in the New Democratic Movement (NDM) and young radicals in the June 4th Movement (JFM) took up the revolutionary torch. Rawlings remained the most popular man in Ghana and, with the help of a new batch of radicals, plotted a return to power.
On December 31, 1981, Rawlings led another uprising. This time he intended to stay, announcing on the radio: “Fellow citizens of Ghana … this is not a coup. I ask for nothing less than a revolution. Something that will transform the social and economic order of this country.”
Rawlings ruled as chairman of the Provisional National Defense Council (PNDC). His charisma drew together a diverse, if brief, coalition of Marxists, unionists, workers, intellectuals, artists, law-and-order soldiers, and centrist civil servants aiming to restructure Ghanaian society.
The country was fractured and financially broke. Idealistic JFM leftists felt they had made possible Rawlings’s “second coming” and wanted to implement radical structural changes. They sought financial support from the Soviet bloc, to no avail. Centrists and moderates, however, were concerned with imminent food, fuel, and medicine shortages.
Ghana’s attempted radical turn was part of a broader rebellion across the world, with uprisings rocking South Korea and Nicaragua, Grenada and El Salvador. It was perhaps the final moment of sustained radical critiques of capitalist geopolitics, before the Reagan-Thatcher Cold War end game of covert intervention and free market economic restructuring emerged.
After intense debate, Rawlings supported Ghana’s acceptance of an International Monetary Fund structural adjustment program that mandated state privatization and gradually opened up the economy to international finance capital.
Leftists were furious. In their minds, they had brought Rawlings to power and he had betrayed them. Right-wing soldiers, conversely, bridled at the disrespect for military hierarchy and what they saw as Rawlings’s illegitimate left-leaning leadership.
In June 1982, three high court judges and one retired officer were murdered. While a PNDC member was executed for the crime, for many this was a breaking point. Left factions were forced out or fled into exile. Moderates resigned.
In London, Lomé, and Lagos, diverse cohorts of former Rawlings allies, from leftist radicals to law-and-order soldiers to rightist business leaders, created improbable alliances and, with foreign assistance, launched plots to oust Rawlings. The government faced numerous coup attempts and constant challenges to its legitimacy from all sides.
Rawlings survived by meeting opposition with force and slowly rebuilding state security and stability. He also consolidated public support by projecting a revolutionary image. He descended from military helicopters as crowds chanted “JJ!” and gave speeches from atop armored cars.
He removed his shirt to help students carry sacks of cocoa, clean gutters, and help soldiers extinguish fires. He felt at home doing physical labor with regular people. But he took precautions against insurrection, tightening his inner circle, sleeping in rotating undisclosed locations, using bodyguards who resembled him to drive through town on a motorcycle.
As a young radical, Rawlings had challenged the state’s monopoly on violence and claimed the moral right to defend the oppressed. Now, he became the embodiment of the state, centralizing power and legitimizing his use of force against rival claims to authority.
Meanwhile, he oversaw the rebuilding of the nation’s infrastructure and writing of a new constitution. After the reestablishment of party politics, he founded the National Democratic Congress (NDC) and was elected the first president of Ghana’s 4th Republic in 1992. His term witnessed a rising neoliberal service economy, a growing middle class, privatization schemes, and a proliferating private media.
Rawlings stepped down after two terms in 2001, becoming the first former military leader to win democratic elections to then voluntarily leave power.
A Contested Legacy
I first met Rawlings in 1999 when I was working as a photographer at the torch-lighting ceremony for the twentieth anniversary of the June 4, 1979 uprising. I listened as journalists whispered about the middle-aged civilian president squeezing into his old Flight Lieutenant uniform as if he was trying to be two different people at once.
Rawlings had held Ghana’s factions together for over twenty years with his flexibility and duality. His revolutionary, pan-Africanist persona allowed Ghana to maintain a radical image while slowly building a militarized, centrist state oriented toward the global free market. He embodied the contradictory tendencies and moral polarities of a generation striving for a new future while being pulled backward and forward. He was a savior to some and a devil to others.
J. J. had been called “Junior Jesus” by masses of students, workers, and soldiers who saw him as a moral crusader that understood their hunger and frustrations and whose use of military discipline saved the country from catastrophic civil wars like in Liberia and Nigeria. He remained their hero.
Others called him “Junior Judas,” accusing him of betraying his supporters and setting the country back. Relatives and intimates of those killed, detained, and tortured in various revolts still held Rawlings personally responsible. This simmering trauma and anger burst into the public and became a constant refrain after Rawlings stepped down and those in exile began to return to the country.
Leftists and unionists instrumental in bringing him to power in both 1979 and 1981 felt he betrayed pan-Africanism and socialism, and ended Ghana’s best chance to imagine a new post-imperial order. They bristled at his revolutionary public persona, arguing it was ironic because he in fact saved the nation’s bourgeoisie.
Like all good politicians, Rawlings understood the importance of narrative. What separated him — what made him a political genius — was his ability to channel the emotions of the masses; he could read people and act decisively in response. He made anyone feel like the most important person in the room, like they were part of something grand. He was a natural performer and intuitive improviser with the ability to draw the attention and loyalty of large and small audiences.
But over time, he wondered how his story would be told and what his long-term legacy would be. Playwright and PNDC secretary Mohammed Ben Abdallah recalled that in the late 1980s, at the end of a meeting, Rawlings suddenly became introspective and asked no one in particular: “Who will tell the stories of the revolution? […] Who will talk to future generations about what we have accomplished?”
Abdallah took on this task in plays he wrote while in government, telling tales of the impossible moral choices of African leaders caught between the needs of the masses, capitalist desires, and Western pressures. In Witch of Mopti, the ruler of Mopti realizes that everyone in his nation has gone crazy by drinking from the well of madness. In the play’s climax, he chooses to drink from the well himself rather than abandoning his people.
The Quest for Radical Freedom
The first few times I interviewed Rawlings at his office in an old colonial-era bungalow, I explained that I wanted to tell a nonpartisan story of Ghana’s revolutionary days. Initially, I was so overwhelmed by his charisma it was hard to properly ask questions. He was a great storyteller who could render people’s desires, weaknesses, and character in a few brush strokes. He reveled in keeping his audience rapt.
One time when he was telling me about eluding Military Intelligence, I leaned forward, taking notes furiously. He suddenly stopped, teasing me that I was too interested in the story so he would save the ending for later. Several times, I arrived at his office expecting to stay for an hour and was there for seven hours and several meals. He could start on one topic, detour across several decades at length, before returning to the original theme.
I eventually mustered the courage to ask difficult questions — about former allies turned enemies, and about the executions. He said that the real stories about Ghana’s past had been hidden for too long and the truth needed to come out for the nation to move forward.
When I asked him to corroborate details or when similar moments blurred together, he would call an old soldier to help him recollect or send me to meet with a former bodyguard, armored car driver, or security operative with first-hand knowledge.
I sought out his allies, enemies, and former colleagues to collate multiple tales of Ghana’s political journey. The more people I spoke with the more contradictory versions of events I got. I struggled as a scholar to put together a singular story. I also began to realize that Rawlings’s political success partially stemmed from his storytelling ability, which kept him at the center of the national narrative.
The last time I talked with Rawlings, he was in a reflective mood. I had brought an MP3 of his coup announcement from June 4, 1979, and we sat in his office listening. He tilted his head back and tapped his hand to the rhythm of his younger self. In that moment of radical personal and national uncertainty, he had presented a vision of sovereignty that, as he had pronounced, “You are either a part of the problem or a part of the solution. There is no middle way… Natural leaders will now emerge not those imposed upon us.” These utterances, which had launched him onto the national stage over forty years earlier, defined a moral landscape of power that the country navigated through subsequent decades.
After playing the announcement a few times, I asked him if I could look at the old flight helmet he kept in a glass case near his desk. He took it out and held it with what seemed like both excitement and weariness.
Rawlings was not someone to express regret or apologize. But I think his way of taking responsibility for the violence of the revolutionary days was to remain strategically silent on some issues, even as he spoke at length. He had more trouble accepting the silence of former allies who had sacrificed for the revolution and then felt betrayed.
As the revolutionary past grew increasingly distant for young Ghanaians, Rawlings lamented that the sacrifices of the June 4 uprising and December 31 revolution had been wasted, with levels of graft and inequality reaching new heights. He had embodied the hopes and uncertainties of the 1970s generation, guiding Ghana across a complex, changing terrain in search of radical freedom and liberation.
Rawlings was a man of passion who never stopped fighting for his people, especially the most vulnerable. Rest well.