Jerry Rawlings, a former Ghanaian air force officer who led two military coups before steering his country toward democracy with an authoritarian hand, died Thursday in the nation’s capital, Accra. He was 73.
Rawlings died in a hospital “after a short illness,” President Nana Akufo-Addo of Ghana said. “A great tree has fallen, and Ghana is poorer for this loss,” he added. The death prompted both main political parties to suspend their campaigns ahead of the Dec. 7 general elections.
A bear of a man with a booming voice, Rawlings entered Ghana’s political stage as an archetypal African military ruler, seizing power in 1979. He executed former heads of state, ordered the flogging of market women accused of profiteering, and jailed dozens of businessmen for corruption. His entourage called it a “housecleaning exercise.”
By the time he left office voluntarily 22 years later, he had served two presidential terms brought about by free elections and had established Ghana as a rare democratic example on the continent. Today, peaceful handovers of power are routine in the country, hardly the case with the country’s neighbors.
Rawlings’ contradictory legacy — brutal beginnings, uncompromising military rule, then free elections — underscores the difficult path to democratic governance still faced by many African nations. But in Ghana at least, where Rawlings is regarded as something of a founding father after the country’s difficult first steps, democracy is an assumption.
Given Ghana’s first experiences of him, that outcome would not have been predicted. He appeared at first to have all the makings of one of the continent’s classic military autocrats.
Jerry John Rawlings was born June 22, 1947, in Accra to James Ramsey John, a Scottish chemist, and Victoria Agbotui. He was educated at Achimota, a prestigious boarding school in the British model in Accra. He enlisted in the air force, where he excelled in airmanship, and reached the rank of flight lieutenant.
His first coup, in 1979, followed an earlier unsuccessful effort and a brush with death: He had been awaiting execution for that failed try when brother officers freed him. They then ousted Lt. Gen. Frederick W.K. Akuffo, whom Rawlings promptly had executed, along with two other former heads of state.
The “housecleaning” that followed entailed more killings and public floggings in a brutal attempt at controlling prices. Rawlings and his fellow officers turned power over several months later to civilians, but that experiment foundered as inflation hit 150%. Most hotels were urging guests “to bring their own soap, towels, soft drinks and sometimes even food,” The New York Times reported at the time.
Rawlings, still in uniform and seething in the background, seized power again, on Dec. 31, 1981. He arrested President Hilla Limann and most of his aides, and dissolved Parliament. The country was in ruins, Rawlings told his countrymen; the government, he said, had turned “hospitals into graveyards and clinics into death transit camps where men, women and children die daily because of the lack of drugs and basic equipment.”
The next years were difficult ones for Ghana. Rawlings initially adopted a Marxist outlook. Fidel Castro and the Libyan leader, Moammar Gadhafi, were his lodestars. Government-run newspapers were told not to refer to Rawlings’ seizure of power as a coup.
The Libyans sent in tons of food, but the effort didn’t work. Infant mortality was shooting up and food supplies were dwindling. Rawlings in 1983 shifted directions, bringing Ghana under the aegis of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, drastically devaluing the currency, boosting prices for the country’s vital cocoa crop and firing legions of civil servants. Inflation dropped, and the country’s economy started to grow, finally.
Meanwhile, Rawlings outfitted Ghana with all the accouterments of his continental counterparts: political prisoners, a censored press, one-man rule. But he was also bending, slowly, toward his country’s long transformation into a democratic state.
He did away with a ban on political parties in May 1992, and six months later Ghana held an election, which Rawlings won without difficulty in a vote judged fair by outside observers. A pay raise for civil servants helped.
The then-fashionable “structural adjustment” program shepherded by the international financial institutions, in which loans are conditioned on free-market reforms and fiscal toughness, appeared to be making headway in Ghana, unlike in other troubled countries.
Rawlings was reelected in 1996 and embarked on a costly road-building program. Then, remarkably for an African leader, he stepped down, becoming “Africa’s first former military leader to allow the voters to choose his successor in a multiparty election,” as The International Herald Tribune put it at the time.
In 2000, his vice president, John Atta Mills, lost to John Kufuor, who had run against Rawlings in 1996. The 2000 campaign was notable for a rarity in African politics: a televised debate between opposing candidates.
Rawlings continued to play a role in retirement, speechmaking around his small country, dispensing advice to his political successors, and regularly making the evening news.
Survivors include his wife, Nana Konadu Agyeman-Rawlings, a candidate for president in next month’s elections; his daughters Zanetor Agyeman-Rawlings, Yaa Asantewaa Rawlings and Amina Rawlings; and his son, Kimathi Rawlings.