Opinions Tue, 24 Feb 2009

Jerry Rawlings; still smiles and shafts with a swagger

By Kofi Opare Opare-Addo*

For opponents of Jerry Rawlings John, the last several days in December of 2008 must have felt like a slow moving out-of-worldly optical trick where the feeling of a forward sensation is in reality a backward one. It did not help that the Electoral Commission's initial dithering on the issue made the pain even less bearable. In their minds this was all playing into the hands of the chief enemy of all things UP and NPP. And true to form Jerry Rawlings has shown by all indications that the he would milk his new fortunes with trademark intensity.

So when he showed up late to the inauguration of John Atta-Mills, "JJ" was not seeking the applause but was significantly telling the world that the sight of his former sidekick taking the oath of office was also his own personal vindication and a total rehabilitation. In political comebacks, only Deng Xiao Ping and Nicaragua's Daniel Ortega can claim more latter life satisfaction than Jerry's re-emergence as a political force in his country. Ever the perennial attention seeker Jerry Rawlings is a master at crafting the time and circumstance for his message and he won't let a demure former law teacher's moment in the sun stop him from grandstanding once more.

For those who stopped counting it will be thirty years this May when a gaunt and angry junior airman motivated by a barracks grievance and equipped with an impulsive bravado, a folksy charm, and a false drawling accent literally flew himself uninvited into the tumult of Ghanaian political lore and psyche. Since then Jerry Rawlings has either been in power or, like a hyena, ominously watching who makes the mistake of taking "*his power"* away, even if it was done democratically by the *"offender"*. He killed three military dictators, overthrew an elected one, then morphed himself into a democrat and ruled for nearly 20 years, then a revulsion against his party got an opposition party elected; and now his own party is in office because the people missed their Junior Jesus so they elected the one he hand-picked for them. If this is all a confusing blame what the psychiatrist call "Stockholm Syndrome" where the kidnapped start to empathize with their captor. So even in retirement the man whose upper lip still twitches with contempt when he so much as smells his opponents still is making sure he remains the most dominant character in the national conversation since Kwame Nkrumah.

But any admiration or even loathing for Jerry's capacity to survive the political crucible and re-invent himself should be tempered by the amazing naïveté of Ghanaian politicians who despite all expectations and goodwill miss the chance to make the former airman irrelevant in our politics. You would hope that men with fine and high scholarship from some of the best learning centers in the West would be inspired *ONLY* by the plight of their people to govern free of politics and petty personal desires. For instance by failing to pursue politically agnostic economic policies Kuffuor succeeded in making poverty more entrenched thus the old populisms of Jerry in army fatigues came back to haunt all of us. Unlike his opponents Jerry Rawlings knows he can make up for his lack of political sophistication by triggering public emotions and empathy with references to corruption, social justice, poverty and all those us against them complaints. We now know that he only pays lips service to these high sounding ideas after he shipped his kids abroad for better scholarship. The strange paradox is that he conveniently forgets his own checkered record at tackling these issues. Even so the failure of his opponents to show that it is still possible to effect change in society without necessarily being a Che Guevara incarnate has played into Jerry Rawlings hands. How could anybody explain why a party that ruled for 19 years and failed be returned to power after only eight years of losing it. The answer is largely Ex-President Kuffuor and by extension those in the NPP who were insensitive to the exponential rise in poverty, joblessness, corruption and illiteracy in the last eight years. This elephant forgot big time!

Kuffuor's failed rule harkens back to the days of Houphet Boigny when the glitter of an expensive public amenity or project was more important than tackling poverty, or strengthening democratic institutions of a young Third World country. Before that Hilla Limann, who "*interluded*" Jerry Rawlings' two coups, was more worried about being urbane and speaking error-free French than about a failing single cash-crop economy. Like Fela says, "fool na fool whether 21 or 54"

With only a secondary education, and definitely without the exposure of both Limann and Kuffuor to the philosophical nuances and concepts in democracy and the rule of law, Jerry Rawlings could get a pass for his disdain and misunderstanding of due process. You can argue that he hides this deep seated ignorance with the kind of sweeping arbitrariness that has characterized his political life. Whether smacking his own Vice-President, grabbing the *soft tissue* in the crotch of a fellow partyman or dragging his opponents to their early deaths Jerry was telling the rest of us that he had low tolerance for dissent and was willing to make his own rules as he went along. For him, the rule is simple, "*le parti ces't moi" *

But how then could we excuse Limann, and Kuffuor for failing to make governance more about raising the economic profile and democratic institutions of a country ravaged by greed, graft, and the sprawl of poverty. We put our faith in these men with the expectation that like all good democrats, they would approach governance as a call to strengthen democracy in a place dying for one. After all, the evolution of the concept as an attitude of life was made possible by those who believe in it. Where is the evolution in due process when in one generation we move from People's Tribunals to Fast Track Courts? Both were arbitrary, both had political motives but one was designed by a despot and the other by a democrat.

Instead of equipping the traditional courts with more effective legal resources and tools to deliver justice Kuffuor, like Rawlings, was totally moved by partisan motivations to create a parallel system where presumably corrupt public officials would receive speedy trial and bathe in the smelly penance of Nsawam for their thievery. With that mindset it is easy to see why these courts (Tribunals and Fast Track) were hijacked by party ideologues and hacks for political vengeance. As it turns out Kuffuor was all along only hedging his political after-life on the pardons of those he sought to jail for corruption. In all likelihood he calculated that if he could pardon enough high profile operatives of the NDC party on his way out of office then there would be sufficient justification for his loot which came in the guise of dubious retirement benefits. Perhaps the only thing absent from the hideous one-for-the-road list is a harem of women to complete the Gentle Giant's life after politics. You have to wonder if the entire struggle for freedom from Jerry Rawlings's tyranny was all about himself. What a waste!

But that is all in the past now, even though the nature of John Atta Mills rise to political power begs the question whether he would not be craven to his old boss. It is presumptuous to know what Mills' judgments would be when it comes to dealing with corrupt public officials for instance. Would he prosecute only his opponents? The danger is that he could easily be sidetracked by these issues to score cheap political points like the last president did. Tsatsu Tsikata, Nana Konadu Rawlings etc. may not be some of your favorite people to have been in public service but it was clear from the outset that the case against them was either weak or was more of an ethical question. Or could it be government legal in a rush weakened a good case with bad preparation? In any case were these ethical affrays any different from Obetsebi Lamptey's pathological desire for a state property or Richard Anane keepings his paramours happy from the national cookie jar?

So how would John Atta Mills differ or, to put a humorous twist to it, can he be a different John from the last two? For starters get it out of your head that he would do a Levy Mwanawasa and turn on his mentor. The late Zambian leader bided his time in the political sidecar of Fredrick Chiluba until he got his chance and turned on the man who handpicked him. That won't happen, but by defying the Rawlingses to choose John Mahama as his vice he tipped his hand early to show that he was prepared to seek his own counsel at key moments. However, close Mills associates fear a blind and fierce loyalty to his friends could be his own undoing. I remember him in the 1990s pushing for his hanger-on the late Alhaji Maikanoo as Hearts of Oak's coach when it was clear Maikanoo, while highly personable, was only a football hustler whose knowledge of the game was pretty rudimentary. The pressures of high political office cannot be compared to the simple, even if messy, issues of finding a striker for Hearts of Oak or plotting to embarrass Asante Kotoko. And in that regard you can only hope that Mills' many failures at seeking political office in the past has taught him a lesson; that in politics, especially the African variety, the ballot like the bullet is vicious and could make a man cry like a baby. Ask General Erskine.

We watch, we worry and we wait for Mills' professorial mind to govern without the intemperateness of Jerry John Rawlings or the incompetence of John Agyekum Kuffuor. Doing these effectively even as he navigates the uneasy task of leading Jerry Rawlings' party would be his challenge. The man (Jerry Rawlings) has become the modern version of Winston Churchill's allegory on Stalin's Soviet Russia."Russia is like a crocodile with its mouth open, it's hard to tell if it's smiling or angry.

For now he is doing both.

Writer's email: kooaddo@gmail.com

Columnist: Opare-Addo, Kofi Opare