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Jerry Rawlings, Ghana’s ‘Junior Jesus’

Jerry Rawlings, who as a young military officer orchestrated two coups to seize control of the government in Ghana, then led the African country for 20 years, guiding it through a period of relative stability with an idiosyncratic blend of autocratic rule and democratic reform, died Nov. 12 at a hospital in the capital city of Accra. He was 73.

Mr. Rawlings was a 32-year-old Ghanaian air force officer when he first attempted to overthrow what he considered a corrupt national government in May 1979. He was jailed but soon became a hero to the country’s poor people and military. With the help of disaffected soldiers and non-commissioned officers, he escaped from jail on June 4, 1979, then proceeded to a radio station to urge his followers to seize power. By the end of the day, the country’s military leader, Frederick Akuffo, had been toppled.

Mr. Rawlings, who was often known as “Flight Lt. Rawlings” for his military rank, charged Akuffo’s regime with corruption and profiteering. “The rich became richer, including the high military officers, and most of us were starving,” he said at the time. “I’ve always wanted to do something to correct injustice.”

A presidential election was already scheduled, and Mr. Rawlings vowed to step aside in favor of the new democratically elected leader. But during his 112 days in power, he oversaw the hasty creation of military tribunals that put Akuffo and two other former heads of state on trial. They were executed, along with numerous high-ranking officials.

True to his word, Mr. Rawlings and other coup leaders returned to their military positions when Ghana’s new president, Hilla Limann, was sworn into office. In a speech before the country’s parliament, Mr. Rawlings looked directly at Limann and issued an unmistakable warning. “If people in power use their offices to pursue self-interest, they will be resisted and unseated,” he said, before ominously adding, “We have every confidence that we shall never regret our decision to go back to the barracks.”

On Dec. 31, 1981, Mr. Rawlings led a second coup, calling Limann and his supporters “a pack of criminals who bled Ghana to the bone.” This time, Mr. Rawlings had no intention of relinquishing authority. He dissolved the country’s parliament, abolished the constitution and banned all political parties except his own. He aimed to establish a socialist state in Ghana, espousing admiration for Libya and its dictator, Moammar Gaddafi.

“I am prepared at this moment to face a firing squad if what I try to do for the second time in my life does not meet the approval of Ghanaians,” Mr. Rawlings announced at the time. Yet, by the standards of other dictators, Mr. Rawlings demonstrated a certain measure of enlightenment and restraint. Instead of imposing Soviet-style economic programs, he took the advice of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank and launched free-market reforms that led to a decade of growth.

In 1992, after more than 10 years of one-man rule, Mr. Rawlings ran for election and won the presidency with 58 percent of the vote. Despite economic setbacks over the next few years, he was reelected in 1996 in an election that local and international observers agreed was free and fair. Under Ghana’s new constitution, which he helped produce, Mr. Rawlings could not seek a third term as president.

Mr. Rawlings was born Jerry Rawlings John on June 22, 1947, in Accra. He died on Nov. 12 at a hospital in the capital city of Accra. He was 73. The death was announced in a statement by the country’s president, Nana Akufo-Addo, citing an undisclosed illness.

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