Jerry John Rawlings, Charismatic Former President of Ghana, Dies At 73

Despite taking power through a military uprising, he ushered in democratic reforms that economically and socially transformed the country.

Jerry John Rawlings, the influential former president of the West African nation of Ghana who is credited with ushering in democracy to the country after years of military coups, died Thursday (Nov. 12) at age 73, the BBC reports. He died in the national capital of Accra after a short illness. He had reportedly been diagnosed with coronavirus, but it is unclear if that was the direct cause of his death.

“A great tree has fallen, and Ghana is poorer for this loss,” Ghanaian president said Nana Akufo-Addo. Flags were ordered flown at half-mast for a seven-day period of national mourning.

Rawlings, whose mother was Ghanaian and father was a Scottish farmer, joined the nation’s air force, and rose to the rank of Flight Lieutenant. In 1979, he led the overthrow of a corrupt military government run by Lt. Gen. Frederick Akuffo, who was later publicly executed along with other members of the regime. He then engaged the country in a “housecleaning,” meaning the public flogging of market sellers in an effort to control prices.

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Rawlings later handed over power to the elected People’s National Party, headed by Hilla Limann. But on Jan. 1, 1982, he took power again and deposed Limann in another uprising. "I am prepared at this moment to face a firing squad if what I try to do for the second time in my life does not meet the approval of Ghanaians," he said at the time, emphasizing that the overthrow should not be referred to as a coup.

This time keeping control of the country, Rawlings modeled his government after that of Cuba's Fidel Castro and Libya's Muammar Gaddafi. But when authoritarianism did not work, he steered the nation back toward market economies and won the support of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund. The result was an increase in prices for cocoa, a crucial crop for the nation, and a reduction in inflation, causing an economic boost.

Slowly Rawlings began to adopt more democratic behaviors. In 1992, he ended a ban on political parties and an election was held, which he won as the National Democratic Council candidate. With the economy still continuing to grow, he won again in 1996. He then took the surprise step of deciding not to run again and supported continued democratic elections, a departure from the strongman politics in much of Africa in those days. With his term-limited, he endorsed his vice president John Atta-Mills for the 2000 election. 

However, Atta-Mills lost the election and conceded to John Kuofor, Rawlings' 1996 opponent. He later succeeded Kuofor in the 2008 election.

Rawlings economic and democratic reforms are credited with changing the political landscape of Ghana, which is now considered one of the more stable nations in West Africa. Over the past decade, the nation has expanded its efforts into the oil sector after an expansion of its production beginning in 2016. Further, the government has made extensive efforts to invite Blacks throughout the Pan-African diaspora to visit and even repatriate. The 2019 “Year of Return” reportedly brought 750,000 international visitors and $1.9 billion to the economy.

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After leaving political life, Rawlings maintained a presence in the country, being a regular on the speakers’ circuit, advising his successors, and making television appearances. But he was remembered as a great steward not only for the nation but for the continent of Africa itself.

“He came at a time when he thought there was a lot of corruption from the upper and middle classes,” Michael Amoah, author and visiting fellow at the London School of Economics, told Al Jazeera. “He wanted to bridge the gap between the rich and poor – and was therefore very popular among poverty-stricken people.”

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