by Chika Onyeani
Posted Sept. 22, 2009 - About a week ago, an announcement had come that the former Head of State (military) and President (civilian) of Ghana, Flt. Lt. Jerry John Rawlings would be speaking at New York University on Tuesday, September 22, 2009 at 6:00 pm. The topic was to be "Mobilizing African People for Economic Development." His billing, which I totally agree with, said of him as "One of Ghana’s and indeed Africa’s most controversial leaders, Rawlings is admired by a large segment of Ghanaians, with many considering him and his years in office responsible for the current economic stability and deep democratic roots in Ghana, while for others his early military rule remains unforgivable. His party, the National Democratic Congress (NDC) is currently ruling Ghana after winning by a razor thin majority against the incumbent New Patriotic Party (NPP). Ex-President Rawlings is still very active in politics in Ghana and internationally, and is considered by many a champion of the “common man.” He has and continues to work to achieve political and economic stability in Africa. In 1993, Mr. Rawlings was the joint recipient of the World Hunger Award."
Indeed, I have been reading in the internet how some Africans in different countries would like a Jerry Rawlings in their own countries, names withheld. Let me say that I am also one of his admirers, in fact, I met him once and took some photos with him. So, this evening, Tuesday, Sept. 22, I trotted down to New York University to listen to our hero former President Rawlings. Ghana seems to produce these heroes, like the greatest of them all, Osagyefo Dr. Kwame Nkrumah. But that shouldn't stop me from making my observations at the soiree for him.
My first impression is that Mr. Rawlings seemed very bitter about something, especially at the government of John Kufuor, who had defeated his candidate in 2000 and governed Ghana for 8 years before Mr. Rawlings' party, the NDC, re-won the presidency with less than 50,000 votes. It was the most magnificent display of democracy the world had ever seen, most especially coming from Africa.
Mr. Rawlings almost completely abandoned the subject he was supposed to discuss, and informed us how he wished we had 4 hours and would like to discuss the last eight years of misrule in Ghana. Seriously, he was totally petty, and most of the time he was shouting about this and that, though he had informed us - with him and everybody laughing - that his wife had admonished him about his shouting during his speech making. He used the phrase, "ladies and gentlemen," like a thousand times. He would try to remember the subject matter but would lapse again into his criticism of the Kufuor government.
I don't understand his bitterness, allegations about several attempts at assassinating him, ha, I laughed at that one, the pot calling kettle black, remembering how he had decimated those who ruled Ghana before him. I think this is why people in other countries are always talking about a Jerry Rawlings for their own country. I am not one of those. Don't kill journalists, don't kill politicians.
The only time he remembered the subject matter was when he talked about corruption in Africa. This is the subject matter that every epiphanic born-again African democratic champion believes gets them a great applause and legitimacy, including Nigeria's Nuhu Ribadu, who was supposedly in the audience. But seriously, "JJ", as Ghanaians fondly call Rawlings, can say that with respect as there hasn't been much accusations in the international press of his looting the Ghana treasury.
But what really disturbed me most was what I was thinking, which was "why is Jerry Rawlings here now with his lovely and articulate wife, when the new President of Ghana Atta Mills, his former Vice President, was trying to break away and see the sunshine without Rawlings looking over his shoulders?"
It disturbed enough me that I had to stand in line at the microphone, for upwards of 45 minutes, during question time as Mr. Rawlings took so much time in answering 3 questions that had earlier been put to him, mostly again lapsing into criticism of the Kufuor administration. As I said, I don't know the reason behind this, whether he feels that Kufuor enjoyed such international acclaim for his handling of Ghana, but Ghanaians threw out his government, by electing Atta Mills as President.
After waiting tediously for 45 minutes, I finally had the opportunity to ask a question. You see, many a time, African journalists like to thread with trepidation about asking some hard questions of our leaders, and when you ask, that leader's supporters would regard you as "insulting" or unpatriotic. I remember being at the White House, and asking former President George W. Bush, some hard questions. The then Nigerian ambassador to Washington, DC, called me the next day and asked whether I wasn't afraid that I would thrown out of the country. Imagine!!
My first question was about the $300 billion that African leaders had illegally looted and deposited in Swiss bank accounts and what African leaders were doing to force the Europeans to return the money to Africa and stop shedding crocodile tears about corruption in Africa, and especially given the fact that the G8 countries had pledged to give Africa $50 billion in the next 5 years.
Then, addressing my concern about his being here when the current President is here, I asked Mr. Rawlings whether he thought he was upstaging the current President with his and his wife's presence here, given that this was the first time that Mr. Mills was attending the United Nations. Remember that it had earlier been said that he had to pull away from a meeting with former President Clinton and President Obama to come to come to speak to us.
Of course, his supporters didn't like the question and hissed. Seriously, I am not sure I understood his reasoning, but to me it is disrespectful of the current President Atta Mills to be shadowed like a little boy who has to be told what has to be done. He won the presidency in January, 2009, and he needs to establish his own mark in the world, just as Rawlings himself had done, especially with his participation at the United Nations. (By the way, the Africa America Institute, honored Mr. Mills on Monday night, at the Ritz-Carleton Hotel in downturn Manhattan).
Let me just tell this story of one of the Presidents I admire most in Africa, former President Festus Mogae of Botswana, who definitely deserved the Mo Ibrahim award, whic gave him $5 million. Last year, there was a reception for him by the Africa Summit of the Africa Society in Washington, DC, at the World Bank building. I met for about 30 minites with President Mogae as we, Celebrate Africa Foundation, was preparing to honor his country (before his Mo Ibrahim award), as the "Best African Country for the Year 2009." We very much wanted him to receive the award on behalf of Botswana. But you know what he said, "Let me tell you this. I am no longer the President. I don't to behave like some of the African Presidents who after they have given up the presidency, don't seem to ever give up the function. I will take your request to the current president of Botswana, and if he feels that I should represent him, in case he or his Vice President are unable to make it, I will gladly be happy to represent and receive the award on behalf of Botswana."
That should be a lesson for Flt. Lt. (rtd) Jerry John Rawlings as much as we all admire him and all his accomplishments, rather than the circus that is going on now.