Opinions Sun, 13 May 2001
In the wake of the inauguration of Mr. J.A. Kuffour as the new president of Ghana, one often hears politicians and the general public alike breathlessly proclaiming the imminent arrival of the 'new'- a rebirth of Ghana. Indeed, the carnival atmosphere at the Independence Square on January 7, 2001; where the festive chanting and dancing drummed out the president's inaugural speech, confirms the expectation that a 'new' era had indeed dawned in Ghana. Some celebrants even called the occasion our 'new' independence victory. The sense of joy and relief was palpable!
However, no sooner had the celebrations ended than discussions of some of the recorded brutalities committed during the past twenty years when Ghana was ruled by former president Jerry Rawlings enter the national debate. The past, it seemed kept a hold over the thoughts of Ghanaians. There is no doubt that the early years of the Provisional National Defence Council (PNDC) rule was marked by a reign of terror. In his prison memoirs titled, "Death And Pain In Rawlings' Ghana" (London: Black Line Publishing Ltd., 1984); the author, Mike Adjei provides a "Roll-Call of the Dead - January to June 1982", to highlight the atrocities committed against innocent Ghanaians during the period.
The haunting list of the dead which is arranged by regions, provides a chilling testimony to the death, suffering and deprivation that Ghanaians endured under Jerry Rawlings, especially in the 1980's. The list includes perhaps the most gruesome, disgraceful, and blatant political murders in the history of Ghana: the murders of the three High Court Judges - Justice Cecilia Koranteng-Addo, Justice K. Agyepon, and Justice Sarkodie. Other Ghanaian newspapers such as The Dispatch, and Internet sites like http://www.prosecute-rawlings.com have also published similar (and additional) names on their listings.
The death by firing squad in 1979 of the three former military heads-of-state: Generals A.A. Afrifa, I.K. Acheampong, and F.W.K. Akuffo; and other senior military officers during the Rawlings-led Armed Forces Revolutionary Council's (AFRC) short, but disastrous rule, also continues to inflame passions. Especially since the so-called crimes under which the officers who were publicly executed, pales into insignificance when compared to the graft, corruption and unspeakable atrocities that punctuated the twenty-year rule of Jerry Rawlings. While any of those public executions carried out after a hasty kangaroo-court judgement could hardly be justified, the executions of General Afrifa, General Utuka, and Commodore Amedume under even more flimsy and trumped up charges, were truly abhorrent.
Those with grievances against the atrocious policies of the Rawlings era, also include Ghanaian businessmen and entrepreneurs whose businesses, were confiscated or destroyed due to government interference. Some lost their lives as a result. The confiscation of business property, possibly arrested Ghana's industrial development for another generation. Entrepreneurs such as: Mr. J. K. Siaw, owner of the Tata Brewery Company; Dr. Sarfo Adu who set up the Industrial Chemical Company (ICL) to manufacture drugs for both the domestic and export market; Mr. Appiah Menka who manufactured Apino soap and other products; Dr. Ato Addison of Cement Works; Mr. Appenteng Mensah of Panbros Salt; Mr. B.A. Mensah of International Tobacco, and countless others; whose businesses were confiscated or ruined, would want the new government to investigate and possibly, offer redress. Those whose houses and other properties were confiscated, and still occupied by Rawlings cronies, would also seek a hearing for the possible return of their properties.
But it is the murders of innocent people that continue to inform the public debate. There are renewed calls for investigations into the numerous murders in order to hold those found responsible, accountable as a matter of national reconciliation. For example, groups such as the Veterans Association of Ghana, and the widows of the military officers who were killed and their bodies thrown into unmarked graves, have petitioned the government to afford the families the opportunity to provide proper and decent burials for their husbands.
The call for a proper burial of the executed heads-of-state and the military officers is a fair and reasonable request that must be considered and approved. After all, in August 1998, the remains "two slave ancestors" named Samuel Carson and Crystal, that had been exhumed, were taken from the United States of America and Jamaica, and re-buried at Assin Manso in the Central Region of Ghana! In attendance at the burial, were several government ministers and officials of the then ruling party, the National Democratic Congress (NDC). Nana Akuoku Sarpong, the then Chairman of the National Commission on Culture, described the burial as providing " a new chapter in the atonement process..."
The slave burial was noble in its intent. But truth be told, that the ceremony had more to do with the promotion of tourism than a belated attempt to atone for the crimes of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade! If we can bury centuries old remains of "slave ancestors" in Ghana; then, we must remove the inherent hypocrisy, by giving a fitting burial to the three heads-of state of Ghana; and other military officers in order to begin another "new chapter in the atonement process" among Ghanaians!
It is in response to calls being made by the general public regarding an accounting of crimes of the past twenty years, that the government recently announced that a National Reconciliation Commission is to be set up to commence work in June this year. The commission's main task will be, "to investigate allegations and reports of human rights abuses in the past and recommend ways of placating victims",(or their surviving families). Ghana is not alone in trying to address issues of past crimes. Countries such as South Africa, Nigeria, and Yugoslavia, have all set up "Truth and Reconciliation Commissions" to help in bringing accountability and closure to a traumatic national past.
The process of investigating Rawlings era atrocities must be handled carefully. In particular, it should not turn into a witch hunt where trivialities would bog down effective investigations. The exercise should not be used to cause undue division and stress in society. It should not become an avenue to exact vengeance or to settle personal scores. Nor should it become a whitewashing exercise, where all the unpleasantness of the past are swept under the mat. That kind of collective historical amnesia weakens the foundations of any society. One also hopes that those who have genuine grievances will cooperate with the commission, and accept its findings.
Furthermore, the new government is taking this bold and necessary step in an effort to help bring accountability and closure to past wrongs. It is in line with the New Patriotic Party (NPP) government's avowed objective of nurturing a democratic culture in Ghana, and setting an example in responsible leadership and citizenship. President Kuffour's temperament for accountability in establishing this commission, must therefore, not be jeopardized by people making frivolous and impossible demands on the government regarding this exercise.
Former president Jerry Rawlings whose twenty-year rule is choke-full with reports of abductions, murders, intimidation, tortures, and unprecedented corruption has remained defiant. Rather than accepting the excesses of his brutal administration of the country, and then apologizing like the statesman he wishes to be, now that he wants to travel the globe as a United Nations 'goodwill ambassador', Rawlings arrogantly refuses to accept any wrong-doing. Nor will it come as a surprise to Ghanaians should the NDC now in opposition come out to disparage the whole exercise as witch hunt or unnecessary intrusion into a bygone era. The NDC disarray is matched only by what has become their hallmark: the cacophonous howls they pass as criticism of the NPP government.
Whatever the opposition to this noble exercise, it is necessary to tell the whole unvarnished truth which is the only thing that can assuage the concerns of the affected families in order to put the whole matter to rest, finally. One can empathize with the families because in our society, the death or disability of the bread-winner can destroy the livelihood and future plans of so many people. The trauma of the brutalities of Rawlings can be widespread. Innocent Ghanaians have been subjected to ruin in order that Rawlings's hold on power was assured! There can be no justification, for example, of the continued confiscation, and occupation of Dr. K.A. Busia's house in Odorkor, Accra; by Rawlings' operatives.
With their wealth and property acquired during their stay in power assured, one would expect some introspection on the part of Rawlings and his henchmen, considering that nearly all of them came to power penurious! Instead, the NDC in opposition offers ceaseless lament for the country's woes (which can only be traced to their 20-year rule), and assign the causes incredibly to the policies of the four-month old NPP government. This is grossly unjust, pathetic, and a scurrilous attempt on the part of the NDC to evade present responsibility by denying history!
The National Reconciliation Commission will no doubt has its work cut out for them. The commission faces an onerous task, that must be done. Perhaps, the PNDC must have been aware of future investigations of its criminal policies. After all, they were aware that General Afrifa was killed for no apparent reason; other than perhaps to settle personal scores, ten years after he had left office. The need to probably avoid future investigations into its activities, obviously led the PNDC-controlled Constituent Assembly to have inserted into the very last pages of the 1992 Constitution, the iron-clad Indemnity clauses.
Under the First Schedule Transitional Provisions, Part IV -Miscellaneous-; Sections 34 and 35 which describes the Indemnity clauses; inter alia, that: no PNDC or AFRC official can be held liable for actions taken by him or his surrogates during the conduct of their duties; no court or tribunal can entertain judicial action against these officials; no confiscations or penalties imposed by the AFRC can be overturned.
Indeed, the wide ranging constitutional Indemnity clauses protecting the PNDC, is extended to cover all the actions that resulted in the establishment of past military governments in Ghana: the National Liberation Council (NLC-) on 24th February 1966; the National Redemption Council/Supreme Military Council (NRC/SMC) on 13th January 1972; AFRC on 4th 1979; and the PNDC on 31st December 1981!
Worse, these provisions in Sections 34 and 35 cannot be amended by Parliament, according to Section 37, the very last substantive statement in the 1992 Constitution!! The thorough and precise language used in the Non-Amendment clause of Section 37; inclines one to believe that the PNDC must have felt some concern for the crimes people have alleged against its leader and officials; and was intuitive enough of being held accountable in future; and therefore decided to take cover under constitutional legalisms. Reading Sections 34 through 37 in the last pages of the 1992 Constitution provides, a scenario whereby the 'criminals' have left the crimes scene; taken the evidence along; and then concocted an impressive alibi to avoid detection, and conviction!!
Alas! Article 278, Section I of the same Constitution empowers the president to appoint a commission to investigate, "any matter of national importance". The 'criminals' could not shut the door, completely! Resolution of the issues raised by the families of the murdered, as well as those living who suffered incurable atrocities under Flight-Lieutenant Jerry John Rawlings' two decades in power are indeed "matters of national importance". The living may never be propitiated for the loss of loved ones who were the mainstays of their families. But it is imperative for them to know why and how their loved ones died. Ghanaians should not be held hostage by the past. Nonetheless, the opportunity to take stock and prepare properly for the future should not be absconded.
Above all, the awareness of past crimes can inoculate Ghanaians against their repetition. In the words of philosopher George Santayana: "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." Let the commission begin its arduous task. And may prudence be their watchword!!!
Columnist: Ellison, Kofi