The Trial of J.J Rawlings (2nd edition) – a review

Growing up in 80s England and overhearing the conversations from ‘uncles’ and ‘aunties’ on conditions in Ghana under Flight Lieutenant JJ Rawlings’ military rule, I remember the image created of this imposing figure was never favourable. I had uncles who vowed never to step foot on Ghanaian soil because of the turmoil they or family members had experienced under his regime. I didn’t really understand why but that feeling of wariness continued during subsequent trips to the Motherland when he was the Head of State.

Picture caption: Felix Antonio

So it was interesting to come across a book, written by journalist, educationalist, and politician Kojo Yankah, which painted the figure of Ft. Lt. Rawlings in a different light and provided an alternative optic to the uprisings that were the precursor to political change in Ghana.

If, like me, you are not an expert on the politics of Ghana during the late ’70s and ’80s, it is worth doing some background reading before delving into this book. It’s definitely not a beginner’s guide to the uprising, as the opening chapter drops you right into Ft. Lt. Rawlings being imprisoned on 15 May 1979. He had been accused – along with six others – of trying to overthrow the Supreme Military Council government.

Background reading

I found the book hard to follow as it is littered with many voices from other newspaper cuttings from the period, and jumps between thoughts and scenes. I also felt the writer made a lot of assumptions about readers’ political knowledge. I actually felt that the movement in the book was better suited to a play. I have since found out that the book has been turned into a musical drama with performances at Accra’s National Theatre, as well as tours planned across the country.

Even the writer admits that the reputation of Ft. Lt. Rawlings (who still lives in Ghana) has become somewhat mythical and actual events of that period hazy. According to Yankah, ‘The Trial of JJ Rawlings’ – 2nd edition – aims to “unlock the enigma of Rawlings”. It hasn’t helped that when this book was first published in 1986, it sold out, resulting in no copies being available years later. It was because of growing demand for more copies that this book was republished as a second edition, Yankah said.

Jumping in

The book starts at the point where Ft. Lt. Rawlings had been imprisoned on 15 May 1979 after a failed attempt to overthrow the government along with his military peers. He was holed up at the Military Intelligence (MI) Annex, awaiting sentencing but weeks after being incarcerated, was secretly freed by junior officers. It was from there, he went on to speak on State Radio to announce to the public that the Supreme Military Council (SMC) members should report to the police ‘for their own safety’.

This, for me, encapsulates how indirectly the book is written. I had to read other material concurrently to understand that this was the point on 4 June 1979 that the new military government – called the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council (AFRC) – was formed, deposing the SMC – and that a coup d’etat had taken place.

Coups v revolutions

I grew up understanding that Ghana had undergone a series of coups d’etat but nowhere in this book is that word used, and apart from the execution of the SMC members, there is no indication that that period was a bloody and scary time for Ghanaians (which is what I had always been told). Instead words like ‘uprising’ and ‘revolution’ are used, and, for me, this definitely created an impression of Ft. Lt. Rawlings as some sort of freedom fighter figure.

Thinking of him incarcerated and speaking on behalf of the ordinary person, did take me to another iconic figure in global history – Nelson Mandela. Did this book ACTUALLY get me putting the two in the same bracket? And later in the book when Ft. Lt. Rawlings hands power to a civilian government and is kicked out of the military; endures isolation, character assassination and assassination attempts, these only served to deepen this image of him as a freedom fighter.

Corruption and greed

The reason behind this 4 June coup was a deep distrust brewing from military juniors about the SMC, and its  handling of power and corruption. This came at a time when Ghanaians were struggling to make ends meet. The economy was in hyperinflation, forcing some people to smuggle in goods from outside of the country to survive.

“Deprivation became almost total; basic commodities could not be obtained, except at astronomical prices and after hours of waiting in queue,” Yankah states in the book. “Hospitals were without drugs and spare parts were unobtainable. The cost of living was increasing by the day, and when the basic minimum wage was ₵4.00 a day, a member of the last Government lamented openly that one needed ₵15.00 to get a single meal.”

According to Yankah, Ft. Lt. Rawlings spoke for the people and was vocal in calling for change and an end to corruption. This rhetoric made him hugely popular while in prison. Once secretly released on 4 June, he assumed power under the AFRC and embarked on what was termed ‘House Cleaning’. This involved rounding up people from the old regime, imprisoning them and most famously executing ministers by firing squad. Included in this bloody display was the death of former military leaders of Ghana, Lt. Gen. AfrifaGen. Acheampong and Lt. Gen. Akuffo who were all executed together with five other senior officers.

It was actually interesting to note how Ghana’s turmoils were impacting on the international community, with the UK’s very own PM Margaret Thatcher wading in to condemn the executions. According to Yankah, Thatcher had been in touch with the other members of the European Economic Community, the US and Canada about a joint representation to the Ghanaian government.

People power

Yankah explained that Ft. Lt. Rawlings had no desire to hold on to power. Under Ft. Lt. Rawlings, the AFRC had also committed to staging elections in Ghana to ensure there was a handover of power to a civilian government. After elections, Dr Hilla Limann of the People’s National Party (PNP) became Ghana’s new president on 24 September 1979. During the handover, Ft. Lt. Rawlings made it clear that the advances his government had made to ensure a stop to corruption would be monitored by the ordinary people – they would be the judges of the government’s abilities. But it seems Dr Limann’s public intentions to uphold AFRC’s work did not last long. By 31 December 1981, Ft. Lt. Rawlings had taken back power under another coup which started his 19-year reign as President of Ghana.

Relevant today

For me, the 187-page book with its 10 chapters, really gets going at the point where we hear the experiences from Ft. Lt. Rawlings. Yankah gets to speak to the man himself, who recounts his experiences of being hounded by the MI, kicked out of his job and his wife – a new mother – taken hostage and intimidated. It also highlights how those in power, once Ft. Lt. Rawlings handed the reigns of authority over to the PNP, had a plan to discredit and distance him from his peers to weaken his popularity. Ft. Lt. Rawlings talked about his associations with women as a ‘ruse’ for him to hide any planning he was doing because most of his military friends had been intimidated or tortured for having any links to him.

Much of what people complain about when it comes to Ghana – ie the corruption, the misuse of power and the economic hardships have not changed – in my opinion. It did feel like this book was as relevant in the ’80s as it is now. There were some exquisite quotes that I had to jot down because, in my mind, they encapsulated a lot of what people continue to debate on regarding Ghana’s existing situation.

One I wanted to share with you was quoted from a clergyman (page 77):

Money and property seem to be the only measure of a person’s worth and standing in our society irrespective of how he acquired them. The situation has brought about the moral decay we see around us….” (I am not quite sure why some parts are italicised and others not).

And there’s the following quote, which I feel speaks to current hierarchical structures in Ghana – where power can be abused to maintain a status quo.

On page 113, Yankah wrote: “Ft. Lt. Rawlings said the present system of discipline which was inherited from the past was based on the blind subordination of junior ranks to superior rank – a system known in the Forces as obey before you complain. He said this authoritarian military code prevented the corruption of senior officers from being questioned and exposed by juniors. It enabled soldiers to be used in defending an oppressive system which benefitted only a handful of people.”

Conclusion

This book sets out to provide a differing optic to life under Ft. Lt. Rawlings’ rule which could help to give more balance to existing perceptions of him. It definitely gave me a new perspective on the man but I felt that the book lacked some balance in its portrayal of events and felt, at times, very myopic. I am not sure if that period in Ghana’s history was a glimpse of how the country could be under Rawlings’ version of military rule as there is no indication as to how those months in power changed everyday life for the populace. It was hard for me, as someone who did not grow up during that time, to truly get a grip on what was happening, and I almost felt like it was written for those that lived through that era as some sort of reminder of a period that – maybe – has been rewritten now.

Aside from the typos and missing words in places, I would say the book served its purpose of educating me on a time I knew very little about.

The gulf I’ve discovered between the experiences of my aunties and uncles, and that of Yankah’s recounting just go to prove how history continues to be not just one person’s perspective but many. And the hope is that between the cultural connotations that come from using politically-charged words such as ‘coup d’etat’, ‘uprising’ and ‘revolution’, I hope to find that middle ground where the truths will emerge. This book also shows me that Ghana continues to struggle to rid itself of corruption. Maybe there are lessons from the past in this book that we can learn from.

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At the time of sourcing this book (in January 2019), it was available to buy at the National Theatre and Jamestown Cafe in Ussher Town – both in Accra. It is currently available in Kindle form via Amazon. The publisher is Habari Afrika Limited, Legon.

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