Like a witch undergoing the last purgation at death’s door, J J Rawlings’ tongue dramatically came unhinged last week in a fit of abominable rant, thereby diminishing whatever remained of his moral capital as possible hero of post-colonial Africa.
He granted an exclusive interview to The Guardian published last Sunday. But by dabbling in the Nigerian affair in a manner that exposes shallow understanding of the nation’s history and greed for dollars, the man once fondly called “Junior Jesus” only succeeded in giving himself away as perhaps the ultimate political Judas.
In retrospect, regardless of his canonization in the 80s and 90s in some quarters, there remains some murky aspects of Rawlings’ twenty-year reign in Ghana that the tide of history simply cannot sweep out of human memory.
True, his political career – first as military lawgiver and later an elected president – was remarkable in populism. But beside that also is the tale of mass murder and impunity. Hundreds of opposition figures including outspoken journalists and independent-minded Supreme Court judges were assassinated or disappeared. Sadly, their unresolved cases are now more or less classified as part of Ghana’s political folklore.
What all of this then fed in turn over the years was Rawlings’ sense of impunity. The underlying narcissist complex was very much on display in The Guardian interview under reference where he tried, though in futility, to rehabilitate the tainted memory of his benefactor and Nigerian dictator, Sani Abacha, whom he presented in flattering terms as “one hell of a nationalist and very patriotic” who “saved the country”.
But when Rawlings chooses to speak so loftily of otherwise discredited Abacha, ascribing to him more or less the toga of a messiah, even after it had become public knowledge that he once received $2m ($5m?) bribe from the Nigerian despot, the joke is actually on the former Ghanaian president.
At the last count, what Abacha stole and stashed away in foreign vaults was conservatively put at $5b. Now, all that the three former heads of state of Ghana were accused of embezzling and for which they were in 1979 summarily “sprayed like mosquitoes”, to borrow Rawlings’ own euphemism, is not up to five percent of Abacha’s loot. The eight top military officers Rawlings had executed in the great purge of 1979 without fair trial included Rear Admiral Amedume and General Roger Felli whose only crime was leveraging their official status to take bank loan!
But the great Rawlings who often boiled in rage with blood-shot eyes at the mention of corruption while in power suddenly began to act funny few years ago when one of his political disciples, Tsikata Tsikata, was jailed by a succeeding administration over impropriety reportedly costing Ghanaian taxpayers a fortune.
In a fit of anger, he sent invitations to journalists to a world press conference to lambast the executive and the judiciary for their temerity. Only for the session to be called off suddenly before the scheduled take-off. The story is told that Rawlings was tipped off that some of the journalists came armed with a mischievous question: whether he ever heard of the old story of eight officers killed in 1979 over alleged corruption.
Of course, in a way, the leaking in 1998 of Abacha’s multi-million dollar bribe to Rawlings had confirmed the misuse and abuse of the nation’s resources in the deluded pursuit of influence or favour. By Rawlings’ confession, the donation unsolicited. All he saw was a car pulling up and someone attempting to drag out a suitcase laden with dollars, right there in the open in Accra. Out of public decency, he reportedly waved the guy to hold it. He saved his next word till they had walked to a discreet corner.
When he finally confronted Abacha’s emissary who he identified in The Guardian interview as Ismaila Gwarzo (then National Security Adviser) and described as “noble, quiet-looking, respectable-looking”, Rawlings claimed he was told the largesse was from Abacha. (With another NSA currently embroiled in the scandal of sharing $15b arms funds, we now know the seeds of infamy were sown in that office long ago.)
Now, listen to the sleazy words addressed to Gwarzo by the sitting president of a whole nation after apparently losing self-inhibition at the sight of mint-fresh dollars, sounding more like the would-be receiver of a stolen valuable weighing the risk: “I hear you people don’t provide assistance without the world hearing it with a twist.” Then, he added: “Don’t think that when you bring this, whatever it is, that would shut me up from criticizing if I think you are wrong, or if I disagree”.
To this “conditionality”, Rawlings quoted Gwarzo as retorting: “Sir, we need you more than you need us.”
Well, the visiting NSA could not be more forthright. Abacha’s dollars was to buy the conscience of Rawlings and other African leaders as tyranny deepened in Nigeria. Against that backdrop, it then becomes easier now to situate the conspiracy of silence among the nation’s neighbours in the west coast and indeed across the African continent while sheer terror was being unleashed on the opposition in those dark days. Three kinds of fate awaited dissents then: grave, gulag or exile. Ostracized by the civilized countries over the June 12 crisis, the diminutive tyrant holed up in Abuja now sought to, in Wole Soyinka’s words, bring Nigeria down to his level.
Under Abacha, Nigeria resorted to the company of fellow political reprobates. Abuja simply became the preferred destination of other dictators on the continent as well as political scoundrels and scavengers looking for what to eat under the guise “solidarity visits”.
As the Rawlings’ testimony has revealed, there was an unending flow of suitcases of dollars as honorarium. Only a few like Nelson Mandela refused to be bought into turning a blind eye on the unspeakable evil unfolding in Nigeria then. Initially, Mandela’s attitude to Abuja was that of critical solidarity against western “meddlesomeness”, naively assuming a uniquely African solution could be found.
By the time playwright Ken Saro-Wiwa, alongside eight others, was hanged after a sham trial on November 10, 1995, the South African hero finally realized he was dealing with a demon. Henceforth, he related to Abacha in that light.
But the spell of dollars and the prospects of more briefcases would seem too overwhelming for the likes of Rawlings then to stand straight and speak in clear and unmistakable terms against the atrocities in Nigeria.
And the free dollars from Nigeria would probably have gone unacknowledged publicly had Abacha not ended the way he did. When Gwarzo was held to account for the billions that had passed his hands under the guise of securing “national security”, he listed, among others, that Rawlings, yes the same revolutionarily incorruptible JJ, had quietly benefitted to the tune of $5m.
Of course, the man so implicated was doubly discomfited. On top of the shame of being exposed would seem deep anger at being swindled. As Rawlings insisted in the interview, the amount counted in the briefcase Gwarzo handed him was actually $2m, not the $5m documented in Abuja.
But Rawlings’ thunderous denunciation of corruption today would have made more sense had he taken a step further to furnish us with the details of how the $2m received was utilized for Ghana’s direct benefit to demonstrate the transparency he is ever quick to evangelize about.
For instance, after Abacha’s courier departed, was the entire cash declared or partly to Ghana’s exchequer? How was it recorded: “unsolicited foreign aid”? “Stomach infrastructure” from Nigeria or – to ensure some confidentiality – simply a kind neighbour? These were the simple – yet critical – details the self-assigned anti-corruption warrior of Ghana conveniently chose to deny us.
Perhaps, the dollars Rawlings collected could still have been justified as a fair price for his silence had the verbal diarrhea that permeated the entire interview not also led him into making a more colossal gaffe on MKO.
Who, other than a psychopath with warped values, could have spoken so callously of the memory of MKO in the manner Rawlings did? Hear him again: “Some may not want to hear it. But the departure of that gentleman called (MKO) Abiola, the one who passed away, saved Nigeria from a probable explosion.”
There are a few inferences to be made from the foregoing statement. An endorsement of the popularly held – though clinically unproven – notion that Abiola was willfully “murdered” via a cup of poisoned tea with a view to forcing a closure to the June 12 conundrum.
Well, shedding the blood of the innocent may not mean much to a depraved dictator like Rawlings whose hands are still wet till date with the blood of three of his predecessors summarily executed in 1979. But rejoicing at MKO’s “departure” as the former Ghanaian leader did is to misread the historic portents of June 12, the cause of which he was unwilling to compromise. It was adjudged the fairest and freest poll in Nigeria’s electoral history at the time.
Besides, in one single day, the nation’s age-old fault-lines of religion and ethnicity were miraculously healed. MKO, a southerner, defeated his challenger, Othman Tofa, in his native Kano in the north.
The Muslim-Muslim ticket also broke the sectarian barrier by winning massively in predominantly Christian South-South and of South-East. These historic gains were sadly allowed to waste by treacherous Ibrahim Babangida and his perfidious apologists. Indeed, those unconscionable acts of yesterday partly explain the monumental mess Nigeria finds herself today.
By the way, one hopes President Buhari would not succumb to the emotional blackmail in Rawlings’ effusive praise of him in that interview. Perhaps, it is time to renew the bid initiated in 1998. Upon discovery of the nocturnal payment that year, then head of state, General Abdulsalami Abubakar, had politely asked Rawlings to refund. A request he never dignified with even a reply.
Now, with the receiver openly admitting collecting $2m from Abacha, it would not be out of place to ask EFCC to explore diplomatic means to ensure Rawlings made a refund in the spirit of the chastity the man himself speaks so passionately about today.