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General News Mon, 1 Jan 2001

Rawlings marks 19th anniversary of his power grab

Jerry Rawlings, Ghana's outgoing president, on Sunday donned his military fatigues for the last time to preside over celebrations commemorating the coup that brought him to power 19 years ago.

Attending a wreath-laying ceremony at Revolutionary Square, Rawlings stood under the green, white and red umbrella that is the symbol of his National Democratic Congress (NDC) party.

As Rawlings leaves power on January 7, so too will the NDC, which lost this month's elections to the opposition New Patriotic Party (NPP), setting the stage for a new political era in the west African country.

His rambling speech to the security services, tinged with bitterness and defiance, was short on ceremony and long on politics.

The former coup-maker congratulated his protege Vice President John Atta Mills "for his strong showing and for his very gracious acceptance of the majority decision" in the December 7 and 28 elections.

In congratulating President-elect John Kufuor, Rawlings took a swipe at a campaign in which the opposition stumped on promises that jobs and free health care would top their agenda, saying: "I wish him well, and I hope that he and his colleagues can deliver on their rapid promises."

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However, Rawlings pledged "do everything possible to make the transition smooth as well as sharing with them some of the difficulties we have been through."

To many the ceremonies marking Rawlings' 1981 coup, though it was widely popular at the time, became an anachronism after the restoration of civilian rule and multi-party democracy in 1992.

On Sunday Rawlings said he would continue to mark the occasion, as well as the June 4 anniversary of his first power grab, in 1979. That date is particularly painful to many with memories of Rawlings' brutal crackdown on dissent including the execution of three of his predecessors.

The charismatic leader legitimized his rule through the last two elections, which he and his party won, not without controversy, in 1992 and 1996.

"This is the last time I shall celebrate this occasion with you as your head of state," Rawlings said.

"That is not to say that I will not celebrate this occasion with you in another capacity whenever we meet again June 4th or 31st December."

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If the Kufuor administration "want to cancel it and refuse, I reserve my comments," he said, raising the spectre of a biennial confrontation over the issue.

Returning to his role as party chief -- which he will retain for life -- Rawlings said: "I noticed that some of you have been feeling very depressed and demoralised. My brothers and sisters, come on! Cheer up! ... If it were a game of football, the score would still be two in our favour and one for them, so we are still the political champions!"

Many speculate that Rawlings, who is only 53, will have difficulty adjusting to life away from center stage in Ghanaian politics.

Journalists have at least one regret over Rawlings' departure.

"He gives us good copy. We'll miss him for that," a local journalist said.

Source: AFP