The Rawlings literature – calling for a more objective assessment

Mon, 25 Oct 2010 Source: Amenyo, Kofi

The things we have often read on ghanaweb about Rawlings have been written

either by people who hate him to the core or those who like him without any

reservations. These writers are so steeped in their views about the man that

they find it difficult to write impartial and balanced accounts of their

subject. They succeed in appealing only to those who also hold similar views and

need no convincing in the first place. The result is that we hardly read any

well-written and scholarly account of the man.

One thing to remember when writing contemporary history is that many of your

readers are living witnesses to the events being chronicled and have their own

interpretations of those events. Nobody has a monopoly over the historical

narrative. That is why it is important for writers to come up with refreshingly

new insights into their subject matter or look at the same things in ways not

previously thought of. Only one or two writers on ghanaweb have really made an

effort to write that kind of assessment of Rawlings. That is a pity since,

whether we like it or not, his 19-year rule over us means he occupies an

important chapter in the political history of our country be it for good or for


There are so many things about Rawlings we all “know” and don’t need reminding

of. Anybody can reel off these things at the drop of a hat even though not many

can support their assertions with concrete evidence. If someone comes up to

relate those things without giving us any new insights, the person will really

not be adding much to our knowledge.

What should we expect in an objective article about Rawlings? First of all, such

an account will try to separate fact from rumour. Many of those who make

conclusive statements about Rawlings base them on rumour or hearsay. They have

absolutely no way of telling us the real facts behind those conclusions.

So much of the discussion about Rawlings has been on his human rights record and

his personal human traits. The human rights issue, in particular, has

overshadowed everything else. There is absolutely nothing wrong in placing

emphasis on these. But the over-concentration on them prevents us from getting a

proper and overall picture of the man’s role in our history.

Even granted that the human rights story should never be forgotten, it must

still be discussed in the proper context. For instance, to what extent can

Rawlings be held responsible for the deaths that occurred under his watch? No

one has seen him pull the trigger on anybody. But Hitler and his henchmen

didn’t, themselves, switch on the gases at the concentration camps yet they were

the ones who faced the hangman’s noose. Rawlings certainly provided the enabling

environment for such atrocities to be committed and the buck finds its resting

place on his desk. It is in this sense that he can be held responsible for those

atrocities. But some argue that he personally ordered some of the more

pernicious deaths. In fact, we don’t know how much truth is in that. His

attitude to the deaths is really not one of a defiant denial. He has expressed

remorse for the deaths of the judges but it seems those he has offended want him

to wear sackcloth and dip his head in ashes for the rest of his life to be

deserving of any clemency from them. But no court of law has (as yet?) found him

guilty of those murders. Some just want him to shut up. Everybody seems to know

best what he should be doing but who has ever talked Rawlings into behaving in a

particular way? I do not hold brief for him. I do not defend the abuses. Nobody

should. But I still want to read a darn good analysis of his place in the

history of my country. And I know that even though the human rights abuses are

an essential part of the story that is not all there is to it.

That is why I also want to read about the manner in which he has succeeded in

polarising the nation along tribal lines, both during his reign and even after

it. It is a topic that needs to be examined in a dispassionate manner. The mere

application of insults and name calling does not enlighten us on that issue.

I also want to read the other side to the man which no one writing a balanced

account of him can ignore. The list of his trespasses may be a very long one,

but there seems to be some items on the plus side too. They say Ghanaians are

stubborn and need tough men to rule them – the likes of Nkrumah and Rawlings

rather than softies like Busia, Limann or Mills. His supporters claim that even

though he robbed us of a democracy, he gave us one in return which is, perhaps,

stronger than the one he took, when he handed over power to someone else, even

if reluctantly. That is a lot more than many of our fellow Africans can say

about coup makers who never wanted to leave power. Is that something we are

supposed to be thankful for? They also say the man, like the prophet, has become

more popular outside than in his own home. But of what use is that to us?

Rawlings has no particular ideology. Being ideological (especially of a leftist

bent) requires some academic endeavour. He doesn’t seem capable of going through

the gamut of intellectual effort that leads to the grasp of the finer

theoretical points of an ideology. It takes more effort than just hobnobbing

with leftist intellectuals at Legon to become a committed ideologue. He has

pretensions of being a socialist but he is really not much of one. In office, he

became a pragmatist rather than a doctrinaire ideologue. It will be interesting

to examine, in a scholarly manner, how he did this.

He is a populist and populism is often not grounded on any ideology but appeals

directly to the downtrodden. To be sure, Rawlings is, today, as far from the

downtrodden as any Ghanaian can be (if he now ever was part of the downtrodden)

but it is important for him to keep his links with them and speak the language

they understand in order to maintain his popularity with them.

The man still has support, some of it rather genuine. That is something even his

fiercest critics (especially those for whom Rawlings bashing has become a

favourite literary pastime) cannot run away from. Instead, they should try to

account for the love-hate relationship he incites in Ghanaians in a convincing


I will admit that it is difficult to write about Rawlings in a dispassionate

manner but it is an effort that must still be made. An objective account of the

man must go beyond our personal dispositions towards him. The intellectuals

still left on ghanaweb (many abhor the site and shun it), must summon the

courage to write about him more with the detached rigours of their academic

training than by being prompted either by their visceral dislike of the man or

the fawning adoration some show to him. This is a challenge to them to come up

with something that is analytical, critical, theory based (why not?), nuanced,

and takes a holistic view so that we can know his true place in the unfolding

history of our country. Will they take up this challenge? If they don’t, we will

all have to continue waiting for the day someone can do an objective article on

this controversial spectre on the national psyche.

Kofi Amenyo (kofi.amenyo@yahoo.com)

Columnist: Amenyo, Kofi