Opinions Sat, 23 Aug 2014

Is Rawlings a Threat to Free Speech?

By Kofi Ata, Cambridge, UK August 20, 2014

The suit by Ex-President Rawlings against Prof Danso-Boafo (Ghana’s former High Commissioner to the UK) and the reasons he averred to stop him from launching a book entitled, “JJ Rawlings and Democratic Transition in Ghana” make interesting reading (see, “Rawlings Sues Prof Kwaku Danso-Boafo Over Book”, Ghanaweb/Myjoyonline, August 20, 2014). In this article, I want to briefly analyse the legal action and its potential implication on freedom of speech, vis-à-vis political memoires and historical analysis of AFRC/PNDC era (bearing in mind that the case still pending at the court).

According details of the suit, Rawlings claims that Prof Danso-Boafo is in breach of what appears to be a gentleman’s agreement between them for him to approve the manuscript of the book before its publication. It is further stated in the writ that the manuscript was presented to Rawlings as per agreement either on or prior to March 1 2012 and he wrote to the author to acknowledge receipt of it on that date and informed him that he had submitted the manuscript to “a team of literary and legal experts to evaluate and recommend amendments where necessary given the undeniable fact that the author’s whole academic enterprise centres primarily on my person." Rawlings further alleges that he was determined to review the manuscript because it contained "several inaccuracies, misinformation and slants which have the potential to poison Ghana’s historical records and democratic evolution as well as bring my name and family into disrepute. It was a matter of grave concern, that the author did not wait for his final input and went ahead to print the book.”

I use the term, “gentleman’s agreement” advisedly because from the report there is no indication that there was a written agreement, though an agreement could be express (verbal) or explicit (written). The contents of the writ as above raise a number of questions that must be of interest to academia, writers, historians and Ghanaians in general. They also raise a crucial question on academic freedom and most importantly, freedom of speech which is a fundamental human right and guaranteed in Ghana’s 1992 Constitution.

From the above, I wonder why it is Rawlings who is suing Prof Danso-Boafo for breach of the agreement and not the other way round. In my view, it appears that it is Rawlings who has failed to deliver his part of the agreement or understanding between himself and Prof Danso-Boafo because the manuscript was sent to him as far back as March 1, 2012. If so, what has prevented his team of literary and legal experts from reviewing the manuscript and recommending the necessary changes to Prof Danso-Boafo so that the book could have been published with the necessary amendments? On the other hand, what also prevented Prof Danso-Boafo from going back to Rawlings to remind him about the need to speed up the review before the publication? However, the two years delay is indicative of no determination on the part of Rawlings to review the manuscript as agreed to and as stated his writ to the court.

The other matter of interest is the conclusion by Rawlings that the manuscript contained several inaccuracies, misinformation and slants which have the potential to poison Ghana’s historical records and democratic evolution as well as bring his name and family into disrepute. My question is, who made Rawlings the final arbiter of Ghana’s historical records and democratic evolution? Again, is bringing one’s name or family into disrepute an offence in Ghana?

The fact is that no two or more individuals ever agree on the description and interpretation of an event and often or always have different descriptions and interpretations of historical events, depending on a number of factors. For this reason, objective fact as far as AFRC and PNDC are concerned is that there would always be differences of opinion between Rawlings and fellow AFRC and PNDC members as well as his close associates and appointees. In fact, a good example is the differences between Rawlings and retired Captain Boakye Gyan regarding what did or did not happen during the three months reign of the AFRC.

The court action by Rawlings is a disturbing because I suspect Rawlings simply disagrees with the contents of the book. It is also an attempt to stifle debate and impose censorship on the era in question through the back door. The court action is a threat to freedom of speech and academic freedom. If Rawlings seriously objects to the contents because he disputes them or they are libellous/defamatory, then he should sue Prof Danso-Boafo accordingly but he should not hide behind the description or interpretation of events that in his view do not portray either himself or his family in good light.

If Rawlings is not scared of the contents of the book, then the book mus be launched because it will allow public debate on the contents and other participants of the era would challenge and discredit the author. This is a golden opportunity for academic discourse and public debate on Ghanaian political history on the period on question.

It is equally worrying that, an academic of Prof Danso-Boafo’s stature agreed to such draconian demand by Rawlings. Of course, I appreciated that by informing Rawlings of his intention and agreeing to the demand, he accorded Rawlings the courtesy and respect of a former head of state and probably wanted his input to enrich the book rather than to court controversy. However, Rawlings has abused this privilege and instead is resorting to bullying and intimidation tactics to stop the public from knowing what is contained in the book.

This reminds me of discussions I recently had with two of my colleagues from the PNDC era on the question of Ghanaian (PNDC) politicians not writing their memoires before they pass on. This was after the untimely death Mr PV Obeng and when it became clear that he did not write one. As someone who was with PNDC from day one to the end, it is a great loss to the nation and historians that he never wrote a memoir for future generations to come. Sadly, we agreed that as long as Rawlings is alive, most PNDC politicians would not write their memoires because they may not want to offend or upset Rawlings. What did not occur to us is that Rawlings would go to the extent of stopping any such memoires from seeing the light of the day if he became aware and he disagreed with the contents.

Perhaps, Rawlings is objecting to the contents because Prof Danso-Boafo did make Rawlings and his family the centre of attention or action throughout the book as he thinks it should always be the case. I believe that Rawlings’s suit is misguided and a threat to freedom of speech that should not be encouraged in a democratic society. I hope the court will tell him that, enough is enough. Freedom of Speech must be protected in Ghana.

Kofi Ata, Cambridge.
Columnist: Ata, Kofi