By the time he succumbed to Covid-19 a little over a fortnight ago, John J Rawlings had become arguably the greatest living Ghanaian political figure and a legend in his own right. But the reverence and adulation were not universal. There were some polite murmurs of disapproval. Ignatius Kutu Achaempong’ s daughter penned a scathing disavowal accusing Rawlings of denying her fatherly love and affection from the age of six.
Forty one years after the events of June 4, 1979 Ghana remains a deeply divided society with its political elite centrally split along the old Nkrumahist versus J. B Danquah fault lines. Until his death, Rawlings was never able to secure the universal affection of his compatriots.
While the masses hailed him as Junior Jesus and the equivalent of a secular saint, Rawlings was reviled by a section of the Ghanaian elite as a bloodthirsty monster who desecrated the sanctity of human life. Some dismissed him as “Junior Judas”.
Revolutions are a terrible business. They spread horror. They bespeak drastic disruptions to the normal cycle of human life. It is a total repudiation of existing scheme of things and extant order. The prevailing circus has reached the limits of its possibility and could only prolong human misery. For Leon Trotsky, it didn’t even matter how it all ended as long as human awareness is heightened and consciousness raised even if farce and melodrama have dissolved into tragedy itself.
Yet for many others revolution represents unproductive bloodletting and the mere exchange of one form of hopelessness for another. Stolypin, the last democratically elected premier of Russia before the Bolsheviks steamrolled everybody, shouted from the rooftop: “We want a great Russia, but they want a great bang!!”
And what a great bang it was for Tsarist Russia!! It was said that the historic lot fell on Joseph Stalin to drive barbarity out of Russia with sheer barbarism. In the event, progress and evolution that must come willy-nilly are gear-crashed in a momentous bloodbath. The measured evolvement of human society is sent on a tailspin, like a Caesarian evacuation of premature babies.
But despite all that, nobody has been able to ban revolutions or decree them out of existence. Revolutions obey their own strange rhythms and even more bizarre time-table. Sometimes they obey the logic of events. But most times they occur against the run of play, such as the Russian Revolution which shook a feudal and backward Russia to its very foundation against conventional Marxist expectations. It has been famously dubbed “the revolution against capital”.
Revolutions also bring out the best and finest in human spirit, the spirit of heroic daring and resistance against tyranny and evil; the noble spirit of altruism and self-sacrifice. Think of Spartacus, the heroic and eponymous leader of the Roman slave revolt. If Spartacus didn’t exist, he might have had to be invented by poets and philosophers alike. Many think he was actually invented.
There was always the human need to invent men and women of extraordinary capacity from down below doing unusual stuff. Think of ordinary men and women storming the Bastille prison, and of L’ Overture Touissant , the great African leader of the Haitan Revolution, who asked the French not to substitute the aristocracy of class they had overthrown in France for an aristocracy of race.
Think of Captain Thomas Sankara who had engineered a near perfect bloodless transformation of the Burkinabe people only to be felled in a hail of bullets by counter-revolutionary forces sent by his friend and confidant. Think of Colonel Muammar Ghadaffi who led his people from the dunes of Bedouin wretchedness to the portals modern civilization in one generation.
Paleontologists have concluded from their study of fossilised remains that even geological developments proceed with a combination of revolution and evolution. While for most times things settle into a comfortable rut and routine, revolutionary eruptions often alter the landscape in a dramatic manner and in ways that could not have been anticipated.
The same dynamic is also at work in the revolutionary transformation of certain societies. As Lenin, arguably the greatest revolutionist of them all, has observed: “There are decades when nothing happens and there are days when decades happen”. Such was what happened in Ghana between May 19th, 1979 when Rawlings was first put on trial for insurrection and 4th of June when he was sprung out of jail to become Head of State.
It has however been observed by sociologists of revolutions that the social and psychological impulse behind most revolutions are two-fold : the passion for social justice and the thirst for political vengeance. Both are evident of the contradictory nature of human beings and the capacity to host both noble and ignoble passions.
There was evidence of both in the Ghanaian revolution. A man like General Afrifa who had been out of office for almost a decade before the revolutionists struck had been pencilled down for elimination owing to the fact that he had cautioned the Ghanaian authorities about the danger of televising the trial of Flt Lieutenant John Rawlings during which the embattled air force officer railed against the system and the massive corruption that had overwhelmed the entire society.
John Rawlings was an unlikely messiah. He might have been a natural rebel but he was hardly a revolutionary. Intellectually he did not appear to be particularly gifted or outstanding. Despite occasional grandstanding about Fanon, it is hard to believe that he actually read or assimilated the socialist texts forced on him by Major Kojo Buakye-Djan. But there is no doubt that he was a brilliant and charismatic opportunist who mastered the ropes and took on board new developments as novel realities unfolded.
What Rawlings also had going for him was profound courage and an aversion for injustice which turned him into an avowed critic of Ghanaian society. His growing up as the son of a single mother and an absentee Scottish father must have fuelled his burning indignation against the hypocrisy and cant of genteel society, particularly its uppermost crust.
The Ghanaian society of the seventies was no doubt a very corrupt and venal society. It had already earned a scathing indictment in two celebrated novels by its most gifted and outstanding writer. In The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born and Why Are We So Blest? Ayi Kwei Armah portrayed a society in the grip of advanced ethical paralysis with all institutions completely debauched and no saviour in sight.
But as corrupt and venal as the Ghanaian society was at that point in time, it was not any more so than the Nigerian, Congolese or Sierra Leonean societies. Ghana however boasted of an entrenched and well-developed middle-class whose westernized roots dated back to the eighteenth century. It was from its ranks that the leading political lights of colonial Ghana emerged. It was also from this middle class that the radical military officers who were to become the nemesis of ancient Ghanaian military aristocracy emerged.
They had dominated the middle ranks and upper middle cadres of post-independence Ghanaian military institutions. Unlike the upper cadre of military institutions like say Nigeria whose group cohesion was based on regional, religious and ethnic solidarity, the cohesion of the Ghanaian mid-ranking officers was based on class affinity and affiliation. They viewed the societal rot with the same optical lens and came to the same damning conclusion.
If anybody thought that the revolt of the mid-ranking officers was a fluke, the grim turn of events that morning would have been enough to dissuade them. In a symbolic ritual of regime-collapse, the Chief of Staff of the Ghana Armed Forces, Major General Odartey Wellington, was summarily shot for being rude to the leaders of the revolution. Thereafter, the old order swiftly crumbled. While mopping up operation was going on, Rawlings had taken to the skies to display his aviation skills.
In all three former military heads of state and many top military officers were publicly executed. It was a development that sent shock waves through top military and political circles on the continent and the world at large.
After his second coming, Rawlings’ decision to steer a more pragmatic, middle-of-the-road course brought him on collision course with the putative military leader of the original uprising, the more ideologically oriented Major Kojo Bouakye- Djan, together with many socialist cadres who had supported the uprising. Like all revolutions, this one also began devouring its own children.
To many observers, Rawlings’ willingness to hand over power to a democratically elected government in Ghana after a few months was a sign that what had taken place in the country was not a well-thought out and well-coordinated revolution but a vengeance-motivated revolt of mid-ranking officers against their better-heeled superior officers.
In fairness to the former Flight Lieutenant, neither during his brief stint as military head of state nor during his subsequent return to power as civilian leader was his incorruptible mantra plagued by allegations and insinuations of personal corruption. He was completely in charge of his family while his taste appeared to be modest and his needs minimal.
Rawlings’ decision to forcibly terminate civil rule in Ghana in December 1981 against the run of play appears in retrospect like an historic afterthought and the evidence of a virus that was yet to work its way through the system. Yet it was during this stint rather than his first coming that the former Flight Lieutenant appeared to have laid the foundation of an equable democratic polity with functioning institutions.
Today, despite the bitter divisions and continuing polarizations of Ghanaian society, its democracy appears to be light years ahead of its surrounding neighbours with periodic and seamless transfer of power between contending hegemonic factions while the nation can boast of a sane and sober polity in which corruption has been curtailed if not drastically reduced.
It is noteworthy that while the phenomenon of Third Term has reared its head in Nigeria, Guinea and recently in Ivory Coast, no post-Rawlings leader in Ghana has toyed with the idea despite all the temptations. Respect for the constitution is of paramount importance.
In the light of this, it can be argued that Rawlings revolution fundamentally altered the political equation in Ghana and changed the course of the nation’s political development for the better. There has always been some socialist murmurings and modesty of outlook about Ghanaian political leadership which goes back to Nkrumah’s legacy and which contrasts sharply with the buccaneering opulence of the Nigerian political class. But whether this is worth the orgy of bloodletting and the traumatic shock inflicted on the Ghanaian society is another matter entirely.
Ghana can be said to be lucky in the sense that the Rawlings revolution did not entail a root and branch extirpation of the ancient Ghanaian society. Simply because Rawlings could not be considered an intellectual heavyweight, he was spared the dogmatic and doctrinaire assurance that would lead to epic tragedy elsewhere. He later turned coat.
The grand irony may well be that it has taken a revolution to entrench the middle class values in Ghana which are a sine qua non of liberal democracy. In Ethiopia, Col Haile Mariam Mengitsu’s scorched earth policies and revolutionary blood-mongering eventuated in the bitter partitioning of the nation and a fourth civil war. In post-revolution Libya, the gathering of hostile forces against Muammar Ghadaffi has led to stateless anomie and the virtual splintering of the nation.
To justify the blood-soaked canvas which enabled this startling transformation, revolutionists often retort that there is no way anybody could make omelette without breaking eggs. But there are also many who argue that the transformation of human society is possible without any resort to massive bloodletting.
It is obvious that this back and forth about the desirability of revolutions would go on for as long as human history itself subsists. But since no one can ban revolution or decree its occurrence out of the routine pattern of human existence, it is also clear that revolutions in one form or the other will be with us for a long time to come as long as there is tyranny, injustice and corruption. May Flight Lieutenant John Rawlings rest in perfect peace.