The passing away of Chairman Rawlings is one of those times the saying “a mighty tree has fallen”, rings loud and clear. How can Rawlings die? I had both a personal and professional relationship with Chairman Rawlings that spanned almost 40 years. It had ups and downs. The personal relationship began when I was 20. I was intensely political having consumed the contents of every single book on my fathers bookshelves about Kwame Nkrumah and the struggle for decolonization. The Chairman was 34 and had just returned to power as PNDC Chairman.
When we first met early in 1982, we got into a long conversation about Ghana and what it would take to solve its many problems. Chairman knew that despite how young I was, I could understand his cause. Later in the same year, the Cuban government offered Ghana five scholarships for political leadership training at the Escuela Nico Lopez. After completing some formalities at the scholarship secretariat, the day arrived. It was November 1982. I left for Cuba with four others who will vouch for it when I say, Cuba is an extraordinary country that instilled in us, love for country. Cuba sharpened our political mind and instilled in us a sense of service to society. I returned to Ghana after 4 years with a degree in politics and philosophy.
I joined the Ghana Broadcasting Corporation to do my national service and ended up embarking on a career in television broadcasting rather than politics. I became a Presidential correspondent and travelled with Chairman in and outside Ghana. Over the years, I had my battles with him and did not always appreciate his way in much the same way as he did not always appreciate mine. I write this tribute to someone who took an interest in me and who inspired many young men my age. He was a real life hero for many of us. We grew up in his time and it was all but impossible not to be impacted by him in one way or the other. There was an infectious side to the earnestness he portrayed. You knew when you met Chairman Rawlings that you were in the presence of something special.
Chairman Rawlings was first and foremost a brave and courageous man, who wanted to see Ghana prosper. He had a rather unique commitment to the underdog and would stand for “the common man” without thinking twice. He expected people to treat “the common man” especially with respect. And the “common man” knew it. They loved him. He blasted Ghanaians about our many bad ways, every now and then, shouting at us for open defecation when “even cats make a hole and cover their faeces”, as he put it at an event in Cape Coast. His bluntness baffled me often and I wondered whether he would not alienate his admirers with several of his pronouncements. I was wrong. The people loved him all the same. For many, he could do no wrong. This was Junior Jesus, after all.
The early eighties were challenging years for Ghana. Poverty was rampant and threatened the very existence of the regime. Drought, famine and millions of sudden returnees from Nigeria. He rolled up his sleeves and got to work. The battles were all over. From within and without. There were several attempts to unseat him, but he was always one step ahead. Political stability in Ghana dates back to those times. That Rawlings survived so many attempts to unseat him, is testimony to his abilities. Overcoming the dire economic circumstances of the day, also took some doing. He went to the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund despite intense opposition from some of his colleagues who considered that a betrayal of the values of the revolution. But he pressed on with an economic recovery program (ERP) that involved some very harsh measures. I recall ERP 1 and ERP 2 and them PAMSCAD - a program of action to mitigate the social costs of adjustment. I recall private sector development taking centre stage and non traditional exports occupying more and more space. I recall a gold rush taking place in the late 80’s following the revision of our investment code, making Ghana more attractive to foreign investment. One by one, brick by brick, the nation was restored to good health. Much of this was made possible because he chose the people he needed to prosecute his agenda carefully. He put together a good team of academics, politicians and meritorious persons and provided the leadership that galvanized them all to action. His sense of urgency was infectious and could be felt across the leadership of PNDC secretaries. Rawlings was very passionate about his views and even though he struggled more often than not to get them across, you could not help but feel the need to join the bandwagon. He was a remarkable and selfless leader and if you were going to work with him, you needed to have a high sense of integrity. There was an energy in the air in those days that is hard to match.
The Chairman introduced probity, accountability, transparency and integrity into governance. That for me is one of the most enduring lessons to hold on to. I daresay, we have drifted from these principles to a degree over the years, but we must hold onto them. The Rawlings experience, all of it, the good, the bad and the ugly, should remind us of how crucial it is for us to serve when in government. Africa in particular, has too much visible poverty for its people in government to live a life of luxury. You cannot be a rich politician in a poor country. We must think again about why we enter politics. These days, too many of us, see it as the easy option to a nice, comfortable life. Worse still, we do not seem to think it requires any particular qualifications. If we understood fully the huge responsibility placed on ones shoulders by entering politics, we would think twice before “joining the party”; no pun intended.
As a people, we should think hard about the role, the cost and the place of government in society because the system we operate can itself become the real obstacle to progress. The Rawlings example is about politicians living modestly and taking an interest in the less fortunate members of society. Yes, I know he sometimes carried it far. As for Chairman, if we left it to him, we would end up giving away all our belongings. The man was an idealist to a great degree. He was driven by a strong desire for social justice and was a vociferous advocate for the common man, who bears the brunt of the effects of corruption by the political elite. He called for personal integrity on the part of people in government. Unlike many political strongmen of his time, it is all but impossible to label him as corrupt.
Chairman Rawlings led by example, and his ability to galvanize people with his natural charisma and passion for his beliefs was unparalleled. He was never afraid to speak his mind on local and international issues. He did not do favorites. Even the political party he founded was not spared his public and well known criticism, when he felt they had departed from the right path. He fought for his beliefs till the very end.
My friends, dry your weeping eyes. Jerry John Rawlings served Ghana to the fullest - first as AFRC Chairman, then as PNDC Chairman, then as President Rawlings and then as Papa J; all the while never losing his enthusiasm. His task is over.
Farewell Chairman. The struggle continues; unabated.