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Tuesday, 2 January, 2001, 16:53 GMT
Rawlings: A hard act to follow
Opposition New Patriotic Party (NPP) supporters dance outside the Accra home of John Kufuor
Opposition supporters mark the start of a new era
By Mark Doyle in Accra

One of Africa's most colourful and controversial leaders, Flight-Lieutenant Jerry Rawlings of Ghana, will be retiring peacefully from office after presidential elections on 28 December.

I recently spent the day with him and was invited into his personal apartments in the old colonial castle which is the seat of Ghanaian Government.

It would be difficult to find a more down-to-earth, populist politician

Rawlings, who first came to power in 1979 as a young revolutionary leading a military revolt, has ruled Ghana for some two decades, most recently as a democratically-elected president.

His supporters credit him with stabilising a turbulent political scene and leaving a legacy of democracy.

His detractors say he created the instability in the first place by mounting the 1979 coup.

Jerry Rawlings
Jerry Rawlings raised the political consciousness of every Ghanaian
When Rawlings first seized power, one British newspaper, in a rather desperate attempt to make the story relevant to its domestic readers, headlined its account "Half Scottish Polo Player Takes over in Ghana".

Well, yes, Jerry Rawlings' father was Scottish, so he is mixed race, and he did, and still does, play polo.

But the caricature doesn't do justice to a complex man who has run several military governments, but whose legacy for Ghana, ironically, is one of the most peaceful and democratic dispensations on the African continent.

'Bored of protocol'

Jerry Rawlings' private sitting room looks like a student's bedsit.

You've been on your feet all day, man, sit down

Jerry Rawlings
With its battered old three piece suite, piles of videos in one corner and a coffee table stacked with clutter, it's as if Rawlings is trying to hang on to his young revolutionary past.

I was shown in for my interview by a presidential aide.

The aide, dressed in a perfect European suit and tie, told me to sit down, then looked around the messy room in a rather bemused fashion, and withdrew.

John Kufuor
The opposition's John Kufuor won the presidency
When Rawlings wandered in from his bathroom, his African smock still splashed with water where he had been washing his face, I stood up, as one does for presidents, but the man waved his hand, as if thoroughly bored of protocol.

"You've been on your feet all day, man, sit down!"

Then the president of Ghana slumped on the black sofa next to my chair and flicked on the TV news with a remote control.

He watched himself at a political rally, then watched his political opponent at another, muttering comments about both performances.

Common touch

Jerry Rawlings is standing down from office, but during the election campaign he leant his considerable crowd-pulling ability and political savvy to his chosen successor.

He's not a democrat. He's a dictator

I had attended his rally earlier in the day - in fact that's how he knew I'd been on my feet for so long and deserved the comfy chair.

The Rawlings performance in front of the crowd was electric.

Speaking without notes, in English or in one of several Ghanaian languages, he had his supporters spellbound.

He joked with them, gesticulated for them, harangued them.

He even, literally, danced for the crowd, and they loved every minute of it.

But one of the most fascinating things about Rawlings on the stump is that he personally seems to draw energy from the crowd as much as they do from him.

John Atta Mills
Favoured successor: John Atta Mills lost out
I was standing very close to him as he made his speech and I could see him weighing them up, puffing out his chest, looking into individual faces to see if a particular bit of oratory had worked.

It didn't really matter what the speech was about.

I've seen him speak entertainingly about arcane legal details of the constitution, or, on another occasion, discoursing for a full half an hour about the dangers to health of people defecating on the beach.

If any politician can claim to have the common touch, it is surely Jerry Rawlings.

Authoritarian past

When, later, I told one of his long-time opponents that I had found him an impressive performer, my anti-Rawlings source was dismissive.

"You've been taken in by him," he said. "He's not a democrat. He's a dictator."

Well, yes, I think I was a bit taken in by him, and he has had an authoritarian past.

But again this caricature doesn't give the full picture.

For his last years in power Rawlings was elected to office and under his rule Ghana has developed into a peaceful, democratic country.

His detractors, of course, remember the bloody days when Rawlings' supporters killed their opponents, the days of witch-hunts against the middle class, the revolutionary days.


Back in the little sitting room, with the president of Ghana perched awkwardly on edge of the black armchair, I asked him what he would like to be remembered for.

He paused for a long time, then said thoughtfully, almost in a whisper, that he hoped his legacy would be a feeling of confidence among the Ghanaian people.

Voters in Accra
Rawlings hopes Ghanaians are now more confident
I think he meant by this that he wanted his populist form of politics to have empowered ordinary Ghanaians.

Not so much in the sense of there being a constitutional democracy in place in Ghana, which there is, but to have empowered Ghanaians inside themselves.

A senior politician who took part in the revolution in the 80s, but who has now joined the main opposition party, told me, and not grudgingly, that he thought Rawlings had raised the political consciousness of every Ghanaian.

I think this is true.

During the election campaign ordinary people were interested and active.

The average Ghanaian is far better informed about politics than, say, the average Briton, and, partly because democracy is new there, it is cherished.


But so much for the legacy, what will Rawlings do in his future retirement?

One intriguing possibility he told me about was that he would like to get involved in the campaign to eradicate malaria.

Malaria kills countless thousands of Africans every day, but some very simple and relatively cheap public education and sanitation measures could make a huge difference to the malaria death rate.

It would be difficult to find a more down-to-earth, populist politician to push such a campaign forward.

So in future years we could see the final transformation, from Rawlings-the-revolutionary to Rawlings-the-mosquito-warrior.

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See also:

11 Dec 00 | Africa
Ghana votes for change
01 Dec 00 | Africa
Rawlings: The legacy
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