Jerry Rawlings Seizes Power

June 4, 1979

On June 4, 1979, Akuffo’s government was deposed in a violent coup by a group of junior and noncommissioned officers – Armed Forces Revolutionary Council (AFRC) – with Flt. Lt. Jerry John Rawlings as its chairman. The AFRC executed eight senior military officers, including former chiefs of state Acheampong and Akuffo; established secret Special Tribunals that tried dozens of military officers, government officials, and private individuals for corruption, sentenced them to long prison terms and confiscating property.

3 Responses to “Jerry Rawlings Seizes Power”

    Ghana’s third military coup was planned by a small group of disgruntled officers. On May 15, 1979, less than five weeks before the national elections, Flight Lieutenant Jerry John Rawlings and several members of the air force (junior officers and corporals) unsuccessfully tried to overthrow the government. During the court martial of the coup’s seven plotters, Rawlings justified his action by claiming that official corruption had eroded public confidence in the government and had tarnished the image of the armed forces. Rawlings also charged that Syrian and Lebanese businessmen living in Ghana had gained control of the country’s economy at the expense of the African majority.
    On the night of June 3, 1979, a group of junior officers and enlisted personnel of the Fifth Battalion and the Reconnaissance Regiment in Burma Camp staged a coup and freed Rawlings. These individuals then formed the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council (AFRC) to rule the country. The AFRC included a cross section of ranks from private and lance corporal to staff sergeant, airman, lieutenant, and naval commander. Although the scheduled elections occurred as planned on June 18, 1979, the AFRC retained power until September 24, 1979, when President Hilla Limann and the People’s National Party (PNP) assumed control of the government.
    Meanwhile, the AFRC purged the senior ranks of the armed forces and executed eight officers, three of whom had been former heads of state (Acheampong, Akuffo, and Afrifa). From July to September 1979, special courts held hearings and sentenced 155 military officers, former officials, and wealthy businessmen to prison terms ranging from six months to ninety-five years. Additionally, the AFRC collected back taxes from numerous government officials and threatened to seize the assets of many others unless they refunded money to the state that they had allegedly embezzled or stolen. The AFRC also charged hundreds of military officers with corruption and sentenced them to long prison terms. Many civil servants fell victim to the purge and lost their jobs as well.

    The combination of official corruption, Rawlings’s continued political activities, and deteriorating economic conditions doomed the Limann government. On December 31, 1981, Rawlings, supported by lower-ranking soldiers, most of whom served in the Reconnaissance Regiment, seized power. Rawlings then established the Provisional National Defence Council (PNDC) to rule the country, dissolved parliament, and banned all political parties. On January 21, 1982, Rawlings appointed a sixteen-member civilian government with a cabinet of secretaries and told them to “serve the people sacrificially.” The PNDC also assumed control of the Ministry of Defence. The Rawlings regime further consolidated its power by promulgating PNDC Law 42, which suspended the constitution and gave the government wide powers over Ghanaian citizens.
    Shortly after seizing power, Rawlings took action against individuals who had allegedly committed crimes against the Ghanaian people. In January 1982, for example, the PNDC ordered former members of the banned PNP and other undesirable elements to report to the nearest police station or army barracks. The authorities detained some of these individuals and released others after registering their names. The police and army continued this roundup by arresting allegedly corrupt individuals who had served in the Limann government, former members of parliament, businessmen suspected of trading on the black market, and alleged coup plotters. On June 30, 1982, one or more members of the PNDC and their accomplices abducted and then murdered three High Court of Justice judges and the personnel director of the Ghana Industrial Holdings Corporation.
    Despite the popularity of the Rawlings regime, there were two coup attempts in late 1982 and in early 1983. On November 23, 1982, a group of soldiers tried to overthrow the regime, initiating hostilities at Gondar Barracks. Government forces, however, defeated the rebels and the police arrested more than twenty people. The other coup attempt occurred on February 27, 1983, when security forces arrested nine soldiers and two civilians in Achimota, near Accra. The authorities claimed that they also discovered heavy machine guns, rockets, ammunition, and a list of people to be assassinated. Kojo Tsikata, special adviser to the PNDC, also accused the United States embassy of involvement in the coup attempt, but the Ghanaian government never proved this allegation.
    Challenges to the Rawlings regime continued throughout the 1980s. Between 1985 and 1986, for example, there were at least seven coup attempts. On September 24, 1989, two days after Rawlings had assumed direct command of the armed forces, the government announced that it had foiled yet another attempted coup. The attempt was led by Major Courage Quarshigah, a popular officer in the Ghanaian armed forces, former commandant of the Ghana Military Academy, and a former close ally of Rawlings. Quarshigah and four other army officers were arrested. They were accused of planning to assassinate Rawlings as part of the coup, but several of the accused allegedly favored a return to constitutional rule under a civilian government.
    Despite the so-called Quarshigah Affair and other attempted coups, Rawlings remained in control of the PNDC and the armed forces, which he commanded from September 1989 until June 1990. An Economic Recovery Program (ERP), supported by the International Monetary Fund ( IMF–see Glossary) and the World Bank (see Glossary), was adopted to improve the lives of Ghanaians. The Rawlings regime also acceded to popular demands for a democratic, multiparty election. Despite these accomplishments, however, corruption, authoritarianism, and incompetence have continued to be significant problems.


    Former President of The Republic of Ghana
 (1979, 1981-2001)
    His Excellency the Former President of Ghana, Flt Lt (rtd) Jerry John Rawlings was born on the June 22nd, 1947 in Accra and was twice the head of state of Ghana.
    His first political appearance on the Ghanaian scene was on May 15, 1979 when an unsuccessful coup d’état he led resulted in his arrest, imprisonment, and a death sentence. But before he could be executed, his friends in the Ghana military led by Junior Officers and the ranks overthrew the then military government of General Fred Akuffo in a coup on June 4, 1979.
    The Junior Officers and the ranks set Rawlings free from prison, and installed him as head of the new government – the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council (AFRC).The AFRC 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 December 31, 1981. He then installed the Provisional National Defence Council (PNDC) regime.
    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.
    He is a product of Achimota School, and 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.
    Military Career
    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 (Flt. Lt.) 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.
    Military Coup
    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 coup that ousted the Supreme Military Council from office and brought the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council (AFRC) to power. 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.
    On 24th September 1979, the AFRC handed over power to a civilian government led by the People’s National Party (PNP), under President Hilla Limann. On 31st December 1981, 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’ 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. In the early 1990s, the economy of Ghana was still not performing as well as it had in the early 1970s, on the other hand, the basic needs of the citizens were being met, many of them by domestic products, and the economy showed steady improvement with guidance from the International Monetary Fund.
    Rawlings’s reputation on foreign policy received a boost when he acted as a key figure in a mediated peace settlement between factions in nearby Liberia, a nation burdened by five years of civil war.
    Democratic President
    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 Rawlings legalized political parties–with the provision that none could use names that had been used before–and set a timetable for presidential elections.When these 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 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 1996.

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