Jerry John Rawlings is Ghana’s longest serving leader, ascending to that office at four different times for a total of close to twenty years. A charismatic and compelling figure, he has been one of Ghana’s most significant leaders whose impact will last for several generations. Years after leaving office, he still remains one of the most popular leaders in the country whose words and actions are watched closely by both supporters and critics alike.
He was born on 22nd June 1947 and had his education at Achimota School in Accra. From there, he proceeded to the Teshie Military School, also in Accra, where his professional and leadership skills began to show. He was commissioned a Second Lieutenant in the Ghana Air Force in 1969, winning the coveted ‘Speed Bird Trophy” for his skills in aerobatics. He was promoted to the rank of Flight Lieutenant in 1978.Jerry Rawlings grew dissatisfied with the economic and social conditions in the country, which he blamed on the ruling military regime, the Supreme Military Council led by General Kutu Acheampong and subsequently General F.W.K Akuffo after a palace coup. On 15th May 1979, along with other junior officers, he led an unsuccessful coup against the government and was arrested and placed on trial by military court martial. What seemed like a fairly routine trial ahead of the inevitable guilty verdict and execution was quickly turned into a public spectacle by the sheer force of the skinny young officer, who bravely took full responsibility for the attempted putsch. Jerry Rawlings’ impassioned defence of his actions won him public support and fueled the discontent in the country.
While awaiting completion of the trial, another band of soldiers successfully overthrew the government on 4th June 1979 and installed Mr. Rawlings, whom they freed from jail, as the new leader of the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council (AFRC). After a short stay in office which was characterised by a “house cleaning exercise,” the climax of which was the execution of three former leaders and other senior officers, the AFRC handed over power to a democratically elected government formed by Dr. Hilla Limann and his People’s National Party.
Mr. Rawlings however remained a visible and popular figure in the country and after two years, returned to power in another military coup on 31st December 1981, accusing the Limann government of leading the country to economic ruin. Mr. Rawlings’ new government, the Provisional National Defence Council (PNDC), sought to restructure the social and economic fabric through radical measures. He established the Peoples’ Defence Committees and Workers’ Defence Committees to mobilise support for his policies. However, the measures failed and after a crushing food shortage in 1983, he reversed course and adopted International Monetary Fund and World Bank approved policies in an attempt to revive the economy. These included the removal of price controls and subsidies and the divestiture of many state-owned companies to the private sector.
While these measures largely had the intended effect and growth returned to the Ghanaian economy, many were displaced by them. There was also wide disquiet about the lack of democracy, the incidence of human rights abuses and a culture of fear and silence which prevented criticism of Mr. Rawlings and his government. In response, the government commissioned a report which recommended the return to multi- party democracy. Mr. Rawlings resigned from the military and contested as candidate for the National Democratic Congress, winning the disputed elections in 1992. In 1996, he won re- election, this time accepted by the opposition. In 2001, after serving out his constitutionally allowed term, he handed over power to the opposition New Patriotic Party, which had won the elections against Rawlings’ party. This was the first democratic transfer of power in the nation’s history.
Jerry Rawlings won the World Hunger Prize in 1993 and donated his prize money to start the University of Development Studies. In November 2000, he was named the Eminent Person for the first International Year of Volunteers. Since 2010, he has been African Union Envoy to Somalia. In 2013, he was named Global Champion for People’s Freedom awarded by the Mkiva Humanitarian Foundation. He is married to Nana Konadu Agyeman Rawlings and they have three daughters and a son.