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Opinions of Thursday, 22 August 2002

Columnist: Ablorh-Odjidja, E.

The Nature of the Horse: Ex-president Rawlings and the state of Ghana

The ex-president of Ghana, Mr. Jerry Rawlings, has been making pronouncements about “positive defiance.” What this phrase means exactly is hard to tell. But it has gotten the country in uproar.

Rawlings' explanation has so far been to claim the phrase “positive defiance” as innocent political utterance. Remarkable thing is he has made many of these utterances before, since leaving office; except the decibel of this last one was a bit high and excitable.

There are some among his supporters who quibble and parse the phrase to conclude that there is nothing wrong with it. And that it is as politically neutral as a fart from a baby’s butt. This long-winded attempt at explanation encourages us to hide our response behind a title like “The nature of the horse.”

A horse, obviously, is not known at all for its ability to laugh as compared to its ability to run. Indeed, running is natural for living beings with legs, except when the bull runs. Then in our parts of the world we say it is deranged. The bull, that is.

Mr. Rawlings failure to understand his nature permits him to think that he can emote like an ordinary man without risks. That he can incite the public with lectures on “positive defiance” without raising fear about M16s and Uzis marching in the streets of Accra. And, that he can expect people to start waving palm fronds at his inflammatory utterances soon as he says them.

It may be wrong, unfair and even sad for some Ghanaians to have negative expectations of Mr. Rawlings. His hot utterances might be well intended. But, unfortunately, the reaction to them is a product of cool reality.

In an anthology of the word “positive”, especially when it precedes “action” or even hides behind phrases like “passive resistance,” you hear expressions of some great men of the past, Gandhi, Nkrumah, Martin Luther King, etc. These were peaceful men. Our Mr. Rawlings is not.

Mr. Rawlings’ primary reputation is coup maker par excellence. He has two coups to his credit. Next he is a soldier with followers ready for mischief. He has no business talking about “positive defiance” without first thinking whether this will incite violence as happened in June 1979 or not.

As controversial as June 1979 has become, one cannot begrudge the fact that the initial intention to drive the military back to barracks was an exemplary idea. However, a lot went wrong. June 1979 was indeed Rawlings finest hour, but December 1981 was his lowest. Or was it his luckiest?

As someone who knew the period very well said: “The sad fact is government was almost on top of him (in 1979 and 1981), when through government reasonableness, they gave him a new lease of life and the rest is history. I hope the present government does not make the same mistake with him.”

But will Rawlings make the same mistake again in 2002? His decision to come back in 1981, especially by the method he chose, is seen by some as rash and also as particularly inconclusive for his own career development as a politician and a leader.

Instead of using the constitutional process, Rawlings rode in again in 1981 on the back of a military coup. He was to rule in an atmosphere characterized by accusations of human rights abuses, murder of judges, intimidations, and other excesses.

To this day, some wonder why young Rawlings’ in 1981, already the most charismatic man in Ghana, a man who captured the imagination of the nation; indeed a man who was dubbed “messiah” or “junior jesus” could not wait his turn at the polls to translate his hold on the Ghanaian imagination into a real political mandate.

Many see the choice of a coup in 1981 instead of the ballot as a huge political capital squandered. It gave Rawlings the power to rule, but never elevated him to the status of a statesman.

Could Rawlings have participated in a political election after 1979 coup and won? You bet. No force could have kept him out. But, the course he chose is now a version of the history he wrote himself. Ours is only just a perception.

Rawlings legacy may still be in the making. But, his current fulminations do not help matters; least of all his reputation. He even runs the risk of damaging the one legacy that so far has accrued to him; allowing smooth transitioning of power in Ghana in the year 2000.

Since then, Rawlings has been making veiled attempts to erupt; some say to come back as he did in 1979.

In the essay, “Politics as a Vocation”, Max Weber described the temptation to seek higher political office. This temptation, he said, has vanity at its root. It’s all about the “need to occupy the limelight as much as possible” and the effect it produces. Such politicians, he concluded, are like actors, always after the impression they cast on audiences rather than the consequences of their acts.

But, Weber should have waited for Mr. Rawlings entrance on the Ghanaian political scene. So far, Rawlings has produced consequences one level above mere acting. His have been destructive to others, but useful to him. He has survived. That’s the reality of his actions.

One reality may be hidden in this sudden increase in Rawlings’ call for social activism. It may be the need to prevent the present government from investigating some of the affairs of his administration. Could the Kufuor government be closing in on him? Is “positive defiance” therefore a wall to prevent this from happening?

Again, Mr. Rawlings is lashing out at an administration that is barely in office for one and half years, just as he did to the Lehman administration of 1981. The similarities are here and so should the concerns from his critics.

Rawlings had the good fortune to stay in office for a period over 18 years, while all along claiming some social cum moral mission. Did he do the job? He had enough time; in fact, the longest than any other president before him.

Indeed, Ghanaians have had the longest time to assess Rawlings’ administration. His successes and failures are known more than those of any other president in Ghana’s history, all of whom are dead, including the three he sent to death by firing squad. For now, Ghana needs a living breathing ex-president, no matter how flawed his past, as a testament to and an icon for her political maturity.

Rawlings, therefore, must exercise caution. “Positive defiance” to say the least is inflammatory. But is it actionable, could it result in a coup like in 1979, and if so for what purpose?

Not for the social cum moral purpose once more, because any claim for social activism on Rawlings part can only recall that he did nothing for the downtrodden. Under his watch for example “Sodom and Gomorrah” in Accra grew. These are the denizens on the bank of the polluted Korle Lagoon; a place of squalor, filth and disease! While the denizens of this community and similar others were wasting away, carried on by his polemics on positivism, he skimped on them.

Ghanaians have every reason to be wary. They know why the nation is stuck. And it is mostly because of coups. Mr. Rawlings has contributed two of them.

What Ghana needs now is reprieve from her past mistakes. She doesn’t need former coup makers rattling sabers. Neither does she want to see some gullible individuals running wild on a cause of “positive defiance.” The orderly transition of government that Rawlings reluctantly bequeathed is the one thing Ghana needs most to stick. It is this transition that’s threatened with this call for “positive defiance.”

E. Ablorh-Odjidja,
Washington, DC August 15, 2002
Views expressed by the author(s) do not necessarily reflect those of Ghanaweb.