Rawlings and his First Coup

May 15, 1979 was a Tuesday never to be forgotten in the annals of Ghanaian history. The day ushered in a 31 year old slim young man by the name Flt. Lt. Jerry John Rawlings into th Ghanaian political scene. On that day, Rawlings led a few junior army personnel to the seat of
government at Osu Castle and fired sporadically. They were subsequently arrested and courtmartialed.


Let me bring up the historical sequence in which Rawlings found his way into the political landscape of Ghana. General I. K. Acheampong had overthrown the Busia regime on January 13, 1972. The first three years of General Acheampong’s regime (1972-1975) was about one of the most effective governance ever experienced in post Kwame Nkrumah era.

Let me take you through the scene in the 1970’s Ghana. The coup of General Acheampong
ushered in the National Redemption Council (NRC) on January 13, 1972. It brought about a lot
changes to socio-economic environment with a very successful agricultural based project
“Operation Feed Yourself” which had Col. Frank Bernasko as the head. The head office of the

Ashanti Goldfields (Anglo-Ashanti) at the time was relocated from the UK to Ghana. There were
a lot of infrastructural developments such as the Dansoman Estates in Accra which was the
largest estates in the West African sub-region some time past. Ghana also became self-sufficient
in the production of food as the citizenry got involved in the cultivation of backyard garden.
There was a revival of the Ghanaian and people became involved in developmental activities.
One may argue that Gen. Acheampong lost his focus and wanted to elongate his regime with the
change of name from the National Redemption Council to Supreme Military Council.

The introduction of the Supreme Military Council (SMC1) by Gen. Acheampong on October 9,
1975 to July 5, 1978 regime also brought into focus the Union Government agenda. Gen
Acheampong sought to promote the idea of a Union Government where he’ll be the presiding
head to continue his regime. There’s a widely held view that he lost his focus and thereby eroded
the many successes he had chalked earlier on in his regime. Some of his henchmen weren’t in
favour of the Union Government agenda and thereby rebelled. Gen Acheampong therefore
confided in one of his trusted generals that he’ll reshuffle his government. This general betrayed
Acheampong by informing the rest of the impending reshuffle and that resulted in his overthrow
through a palace coup on July 5, 1978.

The palace coup was led by Gen. F.W.K. Akuffo and was in power from July 5, 1978 to June 4,
1979. The new government of Gen Akuffo was renamed SMCII and renounced the Union
Government agenda. This new regime went ahead to introduce multi-party democracy and the
arrangement of parliamentary and presidential elections to be held on June 18, 1979. It was in the
midst of organizing the elections that Rawlings and his group felt the need to change the focus of
the nation. Rawlings felt that the country had been plunged into chaos and that the elite military
men were to be held accountable. Rawlings and his men were arrested and held in military
custody pending a date to be interrogated under military court martial.
Rawlings and his group of six airmen appeared before a General Court Martial presided by Col.
Enningful who decided to make it an open and public trial to be covered by the press. Rawlings
indicated that there has been corruption and moral decadence within the fabric of the country and
that it needed a thorough cleansing of the military hierarchy and some of the affected citizens.
He went on to say that he alone should be held responsible for the abortive coup and that he’s
prepared to die for this cause. His pronouncements were instantly hailed as a breath of fresh air
and those who gathered aligned with his bold and brave posture. Selling of his pictures became
hot business and he was hailed as a savior and thus named Junior Jesus. The open trial provided
the exposure that raised Rawlings from obscurity into national prominence.
The wide public saw someone they could identify with and thought of ways to prevent him from
being executed as that was the penalty for his crime of failing a military coup d’état .

On the
other hand the military realized the mistake of organizing a public court martial due to the
backlash it brought to their regime. Not long after that event, there was a bloody coup that
toppled Gen. Akuffo’s SMCII on June 4, 1979 where Rawlings was made the Chairman of the
Armed Forces Revolutionary Council (AFRC). It’ll be refreshing to read Rawlings’ memoirs and
giving account of his thoughts during the court martial moments and some of the decisions he
took during his darkest moments in solitary confinement. I’ll really want to know this.
I am sure that there are some positive lessons that need to be gleaned from such actions. I’ll want
to know the thought pattern of how a 31 year old air force man decided to take control of a
nation at the peril of his life. The retired Jerry John Rawlings doesn’t look that fiery like the one
of May 15, 1979 era but yet still have some nuggets of wisdom for the youth in terms of having
boldness in decision making and taking responsibility for the consequences thereafter. The
political landscape of Ghana has been altered to follow a certain pattern that was initiated during
the fiery days of Rawlings and it is an occurrence worth analyzing for posterity. God Bless Our
Homeland Ghana and Make Our Nation Great and Strong!

Written by: Kofi Otabil

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