Jerry John Rawlings (born Jeremiah Rawlings John 22 June 1947 in Accra, Gold Coast) is a Ghanaian former air force officer and politician. He was twice the head of state of Ghana and was the 1st President of the Fourth Republic. He first appeared on the Ghanaian political scene on 15 May, 1979 when he led a group of junior officers in the Ghana Air Force in an unsuccessful coup d’état that resulted in his arrest and imprisonment. He was court-martialled in public and sentenced to death. Due to his display of patriotism in his defense speeches, he was widely seen across the country as a true son of Ghana, and was nicknamed Junior Jesus for his initials “JJ”. Before he could be executed, another group of junior officers within the Ghana Army led by Major Boakye-Djan, overthrew the then military government of Lieutenant General Fred Akuffo in a bloody coup on June 4, 1979. Major Boakye-Djan and his men also set Rawlings free from prison, and installed him as head of the new government – the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council (AFRC). At the time of the coup, Ghana was already far into the process of returning to civilian rule and general elections were already scheduled. Hence, the AFRC went ahead to conduct an election and handed over power to Dr. Hilla Limann who won the popular vote in the election to establish the Third Republic. Less than two years later, Dr. Limann’s civilian and constitutional government was overthrown again by Jerry Rawlings on 31 December, 1981. He then installed the Provisional National Defence Council (PNDC) regime. In all Jerry Rawlings performed three coups d’état in Ghana, two of which were successful.
In the early 1990s internal pressures led by a group identified with the Danquah-Busia tradition coupled with external pressures from Ghana’s development partners forced the PNDC government to adopt constitutional rule. Rawlings on many platforms professed his hatred for multiparty democracy saying that it was alien to the Ghanaian people. But as elections drew near, he switched from being a military Head of State, retired from the military, then ran and won in the 1992 elections which the opposition New Patriotic Party (NPP) claimed was a stolen verdict although international observers judged the elections largely free and fair.
After two terms in office, barred by the constitution from standing in any election, he anointed his vice-president John Atta Mills as his choice to replace him as President. Ghanaians rejected his choice in the 2000 election by voting for the opposition NPP’s candidate, John Kufuor.
Rawlings is married to Nana Konadu Agyeman-Rawlings and has four children: three girls and a boy. He is the joint recipient of the 1993 World Hunger Award.
Rawlings was born to the Scottish pharmacist James Ramsay John and his Ghanaian Ewe mistress, Victoria Agbotui. His father had migrated to the then Gold Coast in 1935 with his wife Mary to work for the United Africa Company (UAC). In 1941 he started an affair with Madam Agbotui, then a caterer at the State House in Ghana. The relationship ended in 1947, the same year that Rawlings was born. James John refused to acknowledge Rawlings as his son – right up until his death in 1982.
In order not to let her son lose his Scottish heritage, his mother named him after his father as Jeremiah Rawlings John. This name was later changed to Jerry John Rawlings following a clerical error when the young Rawlings signed up at the Royal Air Force. His mother hoped for a career as a medical doctor for her son and enrolled him at the prestigious Achimota School. However, Rawlings’ disciplinary problems prevented him from completing his General Certificate of Education Ordinary Level. He later admitted that his mother’s strictness was part of what made him a rebellious child.
He consequently enlisted as a Flight Cadet in the Ghana Air Force in August 1967, and was subsequently selected for officer cadet training at the Ghana Military Academy and Training School, Teshie, in Accra. For his advanced flight lessons he was sent to the RAF for training in the early 70s.
In March, 1968, he was posted to Takoradi in the Western Region to continue his studies. He graduated in January 1969, and was commissioned a Pilot Officer, winning the coveted “Speed Bird Trophy” as the best cadet in flying and airmanship. He earned the rank of Flight Lieutenant in April 1978.
During his service with the Ghanaian Air Force, Rawlings perceived a deterioration of discipline and morale, reflecting the corruption of the Supreme Military Council (SMC) at that time. As promotion brought him into contact with the privileged classes and their social values, his view of the injustices in society hardened. He was thus regarded with some unease by the SMC. He read widely and discussed social and political ideas with a growing circle of like-minded friends and colleagues.
On May 28, 1979, Rawlings, together with six others who were arrested earlier, appeared before a General Court Martial in Accra, charged with leading a mutiny of junior officers and enlisted men of the Ghanaian Armed Forces on May 15, 1979. There was strong public reaction, especially after his statement had been read in court, explaining the social injustices that had prompted him to act. The ranks of the Armed Forces, in particular, expressed deep sympathy with his stated aims.
When he was scheduled for another court appearance on 4 June 1979, Rawlings was sprung from custody. With the support of both the military and civilians, he led a bloody coup that ousted the Supreme Military Council from office and brought the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council (AFRC) to power.
As one of his first acts in power, Rawlings signed the orders for the execution of some former military dictators who were later executed. Ignatius Kutu Acheamphong, Akwasi Afrifa, and Fred Akuffo were executed. Five other generals—Joy Amedume, Yaw Boakye, Roger Felli, Kotei, and Utuka—were also put to death. Rawlings is also rumoured to have been involved in the killings of Supreme Court Justices Kwadjo Agyei Agyepong, Frederick Sarkodie, and Cecilia Koranteng Addo, as well as a military officers, Major Sam Acquah, and Major Dasana Nantogmah. However, a national Truth and Reconciliation Commission, chaired by Supreme Court Justice G.E.K. Aikins, absolved Rawlings of any involvement.
The AFRC, under the chairmanship of Rawlings, carried out a much wider “house-cleaning exercise” aimed at purging the armed forces and society at large of corruption and graft as well as restoring a sense of moral responsibility and accountability in public life. Meanwhile, following a programme already set in motion before the June 4 uprising, the ruling junta organized free general elections. On 24 September 1979, the AFRC handed over power to a civilian government led by the People’s National Party (PNP), under President Hilla Limann.
Limann’s administration was cut short on 31 December 1981, when Rawlings deposed him in another coup. A Provisional National Defence Council (PNDC), composed of both civilian and military members, was established with Rawlings as Chairman. In his second tenure in power, Rawlings’s policies became more centrist, and he began to advocate free-market reforms. However, despite the country’s economic success, the Ghanaian government was criticized both at home and abroad for committing numerous abuses of human rights.
Citizens began demanding a more democratic form of government as the 1990s progressed. Rawlings answered this demand by forming a National Commission for Democracy (NCD), empowered to hold regional debates and formulate some suggestions for a transition to multi-party democracy. Although opposition groups complained that the NCD was too closely associated with the PNDC, the commission continued its work through 1991. In March of that year the NCD released a report recommending the election of an executive president, the establishment of a national assembly, and the creation of a prime minister post. The PNDC accepted the report, and the following year it was approved in a national referendum. Political parties were legalised –with the provision that none could use names that had been used before–and a timetable was set for presidential and parliamentary elections.
Rawlings retired from the Ghanaian Armed Forces on September 14, 1992.
When presidential elections were held in 1992, Rawlings stood as the candidate for the National Democratic Congress (NDC), the successor party to the PNDC. Although his opponents were given access to television and newspaper coverage–and limits to the freedom of the press had been lifted–no single candidate could match the popularity of the sitting head of state. Election returns on November 3, 1992, revealed that Rawlings had won 58.3 percent of the vote, for a landslide victory. Foreign observers declared the voting to be “free and fair.”
Almost immediately, the leaders of the country’s opposition parties claimed that the presidential election was not fair, and that widespread abuses had occurred. The leaders encouraged their followers to boycott subsequent parliamentary elections, with the result being that NDC candidates won 189 of 200 seats in the new parliament. Rawlings was therefore accorded a four-year term backed by an elected assembly of supporters for his platform. Answering questions of polling place irregularities, he promised to initiate a new voter registration program to be completed in time for elections in four years.
In 1993, President Rawlings headed the Ghana delegation which participated in the first Tokyo International Conference on African Development.
Rawlings and the NDC were elected in 1992 and 1996. These victories were decried as fraud-laden by Rawlings’s opponents, in the book Stolen Verdict published by the opposition, which chronicles instances of vote rigging and acts of intimidation and fear. Per constitutional mandate, Rawlings’s term of office ended in 2001; he retired in 2001 and was succeeded by John Kufuor, his main opponent in the 1996 elections. Kufuor succeeded in defeating Rawlings’s vice-president John Atta-Mills in the 2000 vote, and did so again in 2004.
Although Rawlings did not complete any tertiary education (he completed Achimota Secondary School) and had only an Air Force graduate diploma, he appointed several technocrats such as Dr. Kwesi Botchwey, Ekwow Spio-Garbrah and Dr. Obed Yao Asamoah to important government positions.