These are excerpts of Asaase Radio’s conversation with former President J.J. Rawlings, touching on his life and highlights of his 19 years in office as Head of State, as he recalls them.
The interview began with the host, Kwaku Sakyi-Addo (KSA), asking Rawlings about the event of what has become known as “The June 4 Era.”—the three and half months during which the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council (AFRC) ran the country. Eight men, including military commanders and three former heads of state, were executed by firing squad. Rawlings was the Chairman of the AFRC. He signed their death warrants.
Jerry John Rawlings (JJR): We had no choice. That is partly why I also say that don’t put people in humiliating circumstances because if you do, they will want your life, they will want you dead. Humiliating people is something nobody should do. Teach people, educate them, find any and every means to help people or bring people out of their ignorant, but don’t humiliate them.
The country felt very humiliated when on account, when on the account of your foolishness, soldiers ended up with urine being thrown at them. Or this or that is happening there. Whaaat! That builds up against you and is extended against the officer corp. Go ahead…
KSA: But in the course of the three months of the AFRC people were humiliated. Market women were stripped; innocent people were maltreated.
JJR: I get where you are coming from and it was a very painful thing for me. But this was a reaction to what some of them had done. They were doing serious hoarding. How could you be selling antibiotics and baby milk on your sunny table. It was happening.
A soldier in uniform is pleading for a reduction and you go so far as throwing your urine at him? You know what? If I hadn’t asked Mensah Gbedema, who was Chief of Staff. He was then the para battalion commander.
The one mention… He was a council member. If remember day one, day two, day three, I was outside Accra around June 4 th period. I recalled him and really damned him. Because he didn’t seem to realise that the more you delayed, the action of breaking down Makola, they will take it on the lives.
The women will pay for it with their lives, please. Let them take their anger on the edifice, correct. No bulldozer, no explosives, let them go in with sledgehammer to exercise their rage, hammering away.
KSA: Was it difficult to say yes or sign the warrant for the former heads of states, Afrifa, Acheampong, Akuffo, Felli and so on?
JJR: The first one wasn’t. That is Acheampong. The crave for blood was so intense that if we didn’t offer it, we would go. There was a call, people would go. This thing will spill into the civil front and would get out of control. We offered Acheampong and Utuka, hoping that would..
KSA: Why them?
JJR: They were not unknown for their corrupt tendencies.
KSA: And then you followed up subsequently with the others
JJR: Yeah! Hold a minute, we did what we had to do, hoping and expecting that this was it.
The two of them would have helped to assuage the rage. Approaching a week later, the temperature and pressure was building up again, which was equally understandable.
Because a lot of officers were involved in that. Quite apart from the civilian population, the traders etc. But anything to contain this thing within the military was a necessity.
And only two, we thought it would be enough but no, no. Approaching one week, we had no choice but to start rounding up the others. Those generals were not slated to be executed.
Some others, the true proper ones who should have paid that price would run into 80 or more officers. Unfortunately, too many of the names belonged to a certain ethnic group. If we had to punish them with executions.
That is all people wanted. This thing was going to look like some ethnic cleansing, and it would just collapse and lead to uncontrollable situations. That’s how come we had to load the fault on the head of the commanders, including innocent ones, and to limit the number.
If it had gone the other way, we could have easily have lost control. You probably have heard me a few times talking about the innocent ones as well. That is the painful one that one has to live with as well, because some of them were good people and didn’t deserve to die. That was the only way we could prevent the thing from getting out of hand.
KSA: Why did you execute Afrifa who was retired and was in his village? What did he do wrong?
JJR: It might interest you to know that Afrifa was being provocative and I had him locked up. He wasn’t feeling too good and said they should send him to the hospital and after he recovered, I remember very well. A gentleman who was keeping an eye on him, he is called Dennis. He was also in Achimota School. He was one or two years ahead of me. He was in the intelligence machinery then. … he was ok now what do we do with him. I said let him go home. And yet later, he had to be brought back.
JJR: One evening, I don’t know if it was the evening before the departures were to take place.
KSA: You mean the executions
JJR: Correct. One evening I went to see a respectable general. In fact, some who escaped being killed on that June 4th day. The man whose life was saved because I held him in very high regard. I went to show him the list. I was in a very heavy mood. I remember where he sat and I sat on a couch, a leather couch people rest on and looking away from him, when I gave the list to him. My eyes were very heavy. I couldn’t hold back the tears because we have tried everything to prevent the execution of the commanders and yeah…After about two minutes or so, I heard him behind me ask, where is the rogue? The rogue’s name is not on the list. This shocked me a little.
KSA: Did you know who he was talking about?
JJR: No, no. So I turned towards him, expecting to say who he meant by that rogue because here you are trying to prevent a certain situation with such a list. For him to be asking for an additional name, a name that was not on the list, took me back a little. I turned towards him and was looking at him like whose name is that… When he said General Afrifa. I was still looking at him, like you have to say more.
KSA: What did he say?
JJR: He said Afrifa have been advanced a good load of money to wage a campaign against Acheampong Union Government.
At that time, things were pretty hard. Instead of using that money for that purpose. The money, he said incidentally came from an organisation in the west. I don’t want to say the name now. Instead of using that money to wage the campaign against Acheampong, he used it, according to the General to edge out Mr Paa Willie, who I believe was the leader of the UNC at that time.
He edged out Paa Willie and took over the leadership of the party. I cannot recall, I wasn’t too much into the politics of those days. I don’t know whether it happened or not. Well, in politics, I guess that could be sinful enough. So I kept quiet, collected the list and went away and did what I had to do.
KSA: So did he add the name or gave it to you to add the name?
JJR: It was obvious that his name would have to be added because we would have to make some serious sacrifices and the guiltier you are, the easier it could be. Here you have the list of innocent good people who would have to die to save hundreds.
KSA: And this person was a general. Is he alive?
JJR: (Laughs) Yes.
KSA: Is he still your friend?
JJR: Oh no no no! In a way, I was also naïve around that time. It wasn’t until later that I sought through what he did. What he said could very well have been true. However, I think he wanted Afrifa out of the way because he felt upstaged by General Afrifa by virtue of the 1966 coup.
Until then, he thought he was a rising star. The point man for western intelligence organisations and after the 1966 coup happened, I guess he [Afrifa] is the one they are dealing with and not him, who thought he was more qualified.
KSA: You took his word then
JJR: I used to hold him in such high esteem. On one occasion I was sitting with a major friend about the move that had to be made about, especially about dropping the bomb on Acheampong and in my conversation with this Major friend of mine, who was a captain then… Acheampong in a way had corrupted so many good officers and pushed out some of the good senior ones.
I was saying for instance that this general I was saying was one of the good ones who could be brought back if or when General Akuffo takes over to assist in terms of bringing onboard efficient, disciplined people; he was one.
And this captain friend of mine fascinated me in his corridor. What did he say? [He said] no we don’t need those holy than thou are characters. This shocked me a little. Of course, he belonged to a certain tribe, just like he [Afrifa] did and I belonged to another tribe, but [captain] said we don’t need such holier than thou characters. I was shocked because when again could you need holier than thou are characters?
At this particular point in time when so much has been corrupted. Personalities corrupt, and we know that if the climate is created, there are not many left. And here was a very competent person you could bring on board, and you are calling holier than thou. I mean who compromised himself. What were you going to ask?
KSA: I was going to ask if this is still the General or another person
JJR: No, no! It is that same General. He is a survivor. Ummmm. The number of attempts he made on my life …yeah and a few things. (Laughs) Read my book when it comes out.
KSA: Okay, We’re looking forward to it.
JJR: If you will be alive to read it.
Both laughs …
JJR: This gentleman friend of mine. The holier than thou character like I was saying, it hurt and shocked me. I thought people like that could be required and needed. But as I was saying earlier or later… (gets emotional, paused). No… no, I will stop here. But when you hold such a General in awe and you’re just a young officer thrust into a situation like this, people have to go, He will know. It is not illogical.
KSA: Do you regret it?
JJR: (Pauses) No comments yet
SKA: Can I ask a couple of questions then?
JJR: Feel free
KSA: Who has been …
JJR: In the case of Afrifa’s situation, it was absolutely unnecessary. This is pretty much like taking advantage of the nativity of a young officer. That is not to say that I didn’t believe what he was saying about him [Afrifa]. The extent to which he used the money to edge out Paa Willie’s leadership and took over. That is political power also.
SKA: Is there anything in your 20 years in power that you will say as for this and that, I will do differently?
JJR: (Pauses) I’ve been asked that question a number of times. It cannot, it won’t work that way, no because we examined everything. Yeah, there was no other way but to do what we did. Aha! What happened. What we did, it was tough, it was hot.
SKA: There was a photograph that I saw of you and Faustina Acheampong, General Acheampong’s wife. That was a few years ago. What were you talking about? Was she scolding you?
JJR: (Laughs) Ohh no! I think Mrs Acheampong is one of those people who might have understood the pressure and tension of those days. Besides we knew each other. My mother was in charge of the house-keeping of the government structure. Yes!
KSA: Your mother, Madam Agbotui?
JJR: Yes. Incidentally, she [Mrs Acheampong] is a matured, good-hearted person
KSA: Did you talk about her husband?
JJR: (Sighs) May be someday did, we may but not on this occasion. It was at a funeral. What’s his name S.S Omane
KSA & JJR: S.S Omane, former IGP
KSA: Was it a cordial conversation between you? A civil conversation?
JJR: Very much so. Very civil. No, no, I like that woman. I like her.
KSA: Do you feel any regret when you meet a widow like that?
JJR: I feel sad about it, but no regrets. We had no choice but to do what we did. Anything short of it would have been inviting trouble.
KSA: Everything you said notwithstanding, these men were husbands, they were sons, they were fathers.
KSA: Do you think about their children? How they felt then, how they feel now?
JJR: Yeah! Some of them I think grew to understand the nature of the situation and don’t hold it against me. And I’m glad that we have such matured people in relation to that situation.
KSA: Your contemporaries are still in power, Museveni and the others. Do you wish you hadn’t handed over?
JJR: (Pauses) You know, in the first place, I didn’t really feel I was handing over power anyway.
JJR: Yeah. It was a tiresome job. It was a tiring job. We were on our feet. We were not enjoying power the way others are/were doing after us. No! Besides, I’m saying that the fear factor was thrown out of the window under my leadership, or upon my intervention. So who among… will be afraid of me.
That is how much I was doing my possible best to sustain an air of positive defiance. I keep saying if people are not encouraged to be that defiant, they cannot defend freedom, they cannot defend justice. I am a product of the outburst and in the course of time, people have become …The fear factor degenerates into hatred. When it degenerates into hatred, there is no more fear, it wants to act, it wants to react.
KSA: But how tolerant were you of defiance. Of people who defied you?
JJR: No! (Laughs) I remember telling Madam Joyce Aryee
SKA: PNDC Secretary for Education?
JJR: Yes. I remember telling her that don’t put yourself in a position to be defied. Otherwise, it could endanger the situation. I remember she was quoting me at one point in time. That is what I was trying to say about some of our comrades.
They didn’t seem to realise how unsafe it could be in those days. However, that is why I make a distinction because positive defiance and negative defiance. I’ll take a stance against negative defiance any day but in terms of positive defiance, it is required.
SKA: What is positive defiance
JJR: In the armed forces, a subordinate warrant officer, can look at the General or look at the senior, salute and say, Sir, your so and so is improper or your so and so is wrong, Sir. The nature of the military relies on positive defiance.
Ms Victoria Agbotui, Rawling’s mother (left)
KSA: Tell me about your early years. Your mom is still alive. How old is she?
JJR: She turned 100 recently, I think
SKA: (Screams) One hundred.
JJR: Yes, yes, I believe so. My granny died at 104.
SKA: Your grandfather
JJR: My grandmother. Uhh! She was a great soul. May she rest in peace. Uhh! She was a great soul. [Chuckles] She was the best. The rest were just little tyrants.
kSA: So some of these things that you went through as head of state in 1979 all through did you talk politics with your mother for example? How does she call you by the way?
JJR: Ummm Jerry
SKA: She calls you Jerry. Does she say Jerry, in Ewe be careful of what you’re doing?
JJR: No we didn’t discuss politics in away but I think she always knew that I was unhappy about the way things were going in the country. I don’t think she thought I would go that far, actually.
KSA: Your father, Mr John, who worked in Ghana and came from Scotland. How did your name then become a Rawlings when your father was John?
JJR: My name used to be John too. My father’s name James Ramsey John. I think he was trying to be smart when I think he named me or suggested a name like Jerry John
SKA: Jerry Rawlings
JJR: No, Jerry Rawlings John correct. It was when I applied to join the armed forces, when they replied me, they switched the position of John and Rawlings. If this is what it might take for me to go and fly, I was not going to disturb it at all. You know what I mean
JJR: So I left it as it was. Ummm! John is actually a last name, I don’t know whether to say a surname in Scotland with quite a number of people.
KSA: So he was absent in your life as you were growing up right?
JJR: It is only the driver who will drive over once in a while to see my mother. But I remember the day my mother took me to go and meet him. Of course, he had black hair at that time. He was the boss at Kingsway Chemist.
KSA: Did you feel a void in your life as a child and as young man?
JJR: (Laughs) When you have a mother like Ms Agbotui, there is no void. No, no, ummm, ummm! She is everything. Eiiii! Aunty Vic. No, no! But I had a brother who was 10 years older. My great hero. I didn’t know he was my hero until he died and was lying in the casket when it hit me that my man…
KSA: What was his name?
JJR: Nii Arday, the difference between our age, you would naturally learn a lot from an older person like that.
SKA: What fond memories do you have of your years in Achimota School?
JJR: Lots of memories. Achimota was a place I liked very much. (Pauses) I think most people look forward to going home during holidays, I presume, but I enjoyed Achimota so much. Going home was like returning to the home of tyrants. But uuum, but Achimota was a great and interesting place. I had interesting friends, Tony, Larry ,a good number of them.
SKA: Tony Gbeho
JJR: Yes, Tony Gbeho, yeah, we were almost always together. And there is something about Achimota that I liked. That is how come met Ghanaba [Guy Warren], he loved the forest, I love the forest…We go over the RB, keeping my distance…(pauses). I was not a lonely guy but I liked to enjoy my solitude and my aloneness
SKA: I interviewed him (Ghanaba) once, I went to his village in Medie and as I tried to park, he said no you can’t park there, that is for Jack.
JJR: (Laughs) That is what he used to call me. Yeah what’s his name, Ghanaba. What a creative mind. So articulate, we learn from people like that.
SKA: How did you and Boakye-Gyan [Major (retd)] become friends?
JJR: (Laughs) Boakye-Gyan, I remember the one [first time] time I saw him in Achimota School, I was in Guggisberg House, he was in Gyamfi, as I was passing through that corridor, Tony[Gbeho] and I met up and this guy comes from somewhere complaining to us. He was a senior. He didn’t come to Achimota as a junior. [He was] complaining to us about one of the Forsons borrowing his record
KSA: His LP
JJR: His LP and was refusing to return it. He was asking if we couldn’t persuade him to return his records. I didn’t see what it had to do with me, besides, John Forson was my senior anyway, I don’t know about Tony.
That was it. We left for the dining hall. So we were not friends. Some of the claims he has made in his book [are] just nonsense. We became friends later in the armed forces. Ehmmmm! And it was the concern about the political situation in the country that got us together.
KSA: You wanted to become a priest because?
JJR: Not so much because I wanted to sing praises and worship God and things like that. But I was looking for a way to deal with the injustice around us. And as well as live a virtuous life kind of thing.
Mind you, I was not more than 15 and I recall the street I was walking on, around the Ringway Estates when I was saying to myself, I’m going to punish Nkrumah’s minister’s someday. Yeah, I was not more than nine or 10 years old when I witnessed something that made me very unhappy.
My aunty’s [husband] with whom I was staying because my granny, was my favourite and was living with them, started building some of the estates in Tema. He was an English man and the man was not being paid what was due him and was becoming alcoholic, always drinking beer.
Aunty Patience decided she will go and dig up what was due him. So she dressed up day one, day two, day three, she found some answers to come and tell her mother, my granny about it.
It was [at] the huge South Labadi Estate compound house. Interestingly, those days, they didn’t use walls, it was hedges. As she sat in front of granny and she was talking, nobody else was in the compound, just me sitting behind them. And as she was talking to my granny, she was whispering.
She was whispering because she was afraid of being heard and what could happen to her, if she said the wrong thing and was reported. I was more focused on the fact that people were full of so much fear, they had to whisper in a compound when nobody was around.
It turned out that (sighs) the reason why they weren’t being paid as she was telling granny was that she would have to acquire a party card before she can access that money. Something like that hits you hard even at 9 or 10, I don’t recall how old I was exactly then etc.
KSA: So that was what she was whispering
JJR: Yes, that was what she was whispering to her mother, my granny.
KSA: Why did you choose the Airforce? You couldn’t become a priest and then ended up in the armed forces.
JJR: Talking about priesthood, I was not more than six years old when I was telling my mother I wanted to be a pilot. The colonial days, they were using the Dakota and they flew over Official Town [Adabraka] dropping pamphlets and things like that. So, I was quiet familiar with things like that. I remember very wellsome Kwahu guys who were in the boys’ quarters in the house, one of them was asking what I wanted to be when I grow up.
I was standing next to my mother, when I said I wanted to become a pilot, the slap she landed on my back, and almost pocked a finger in my face, [and said] you will be a doctor. You will be a scientist. Ohh yes! In those days, parents fell they own you to the extent that they could even take … of life.
Of course, I never gave up my dream. Many years later, when I won the Speed Bird trophy, she was not interested. And in those days, we didn’t have television, we had the movie houses, Globe, Roxy etc. I was all over the country, the newsreel, they used to call it, collecting this silver cup trophy. I think she only saw the danger of things. It is not undoable.
KSA: Do you miss flying?
JJR: Very much so. (Pauses) Ohh yes! Ohhh Jesus! Who doesn’t love flying. Ummm, ummm!
KSA: Is that when you are most at peace?
JJR: I believe so. I believe so. It helped me a lot, it helped to distress me. When I was in office, I would go and fly in the afternoons. Some of us were not unknown for attempting or doing daring things.
KSA: How important was the day Clinton came to Ghana to you in your presidency.
JJR: Clinton was somebody I thought was going to be President, even while he was a governor. There was a lady, a nurse, and she left Ghana and ended up working with them.
KSA: She’s a nurse
JJR: Yes, and then came back later, and was telling my wife and I we should get to know this governor before he becomes President. Subsequently, when he entered the race and I saw on CNN about about six or eight of them, eight of them I think, and when hearing their voices, his expressions etc, It was clear America was seeking a man like that, and he did [win].
Unfortunately, the [Monica] Lewinsky affair tried to mess him up. Such a brilliant mind, so articulate, who was an intellectual force to reckon with … Because of this, his enemies would want to ruin him? I didn’t think that was fair. So if there was anything we could do to clean up and raise it him up a little bit, we should do it and that is what we did. We gave him a good welcome here.
KSA: By the way, you and Kufuor, you met at a party in Nick Amarteyfio’s house in the mid-70s. I’m told you spoke the whole evening and you got on to the kenkey and pepper.
JJR: (Laughs) Kenkey and pepper, I like that. Oh why not. Those days, he loves wearing Ray Charles dark glasses. And I think he loves having fun.
KSA: Just like you (laughs)
JJR: May be, but not to that extent.
JJR: Anyway, yeah why not, I don’t know if I was in the air force by then, or I had just left school. I can’t recall. Oh yeah, if it is in the 70Ss, I might be in the airforce.
JJR: I can understand why we could, I don’t know what we were talking about but I was never quiet about the situation in the country.
KSA: I’m sure you were talking about that he became your Secretary for Local Government after December 31st.
KSA: For a very short period. You had a good enough relationship to make him…
JJR: It is best to say, he had that kind of relationship with Kojo Tsikata, I think but my friend was his wife’s nephew. I wrote a tribute about Osei Aidoo. One of the brainiest characters I have come across. Whaaaat! (screams)
KSA: He passed away maybe last year? Worked with the World Bank?
JJR: That is him
KSA: Osei, that is D.K Osei’s older brother. You looked up to him when you were in Achimota School.
JJR: I just loved that guy. I like and admire brainy people. And he was very bold man as well. He was good.
KSA: You actually thought he might become head of state and in the end you did
JJR: May be because he spent too much time with the World Bank. By the way, I did, no, no, no. I would have stepped aside any day for Osei. I just happen to have chosen a profession that it became obvious that it is not the bible that is going to give us that you need but the gun.
KSA: We can’t conclude this conversation without talking about a certain Nana Konadu.
KSA: (Laughs) Your beloved Nana Konadu whom you went to school with in Achimota School, Do you remember the moment you set eyes on her?
JJR: She claims I bullied her the first day we came to classes because somehow I found myself in the company of the senior ones. Anyway, maybe she is right, but, but, she was special, even as a young girl, and she is still special. She was special and so special. And for me, it had to be her. It was a privilege for me to be acquainted with her. I remember telling her that I don’t deserve her and at the same time, nobody deserves her better than me.
KSA: How many years?
JJR: I say when we are reincarnated and we come back, I’m so coming back for her and then she said yeah, provided she comes as the man and I come as the woman.
KSA: You’ve been married like 43 years?
JJR: Nana has been a very good friend as well. Something that appears missing in peoples’ relationships is friendship. Friendship is important. And to be to talk, exchange things, logic etc.
A woman isn’t there just for whatever and the kitchen and … No.no. no! Women are our partners. We must respect women enough and I think that is how come I lasted as long as I did in office because of the role the women played. They were virtually our backbone. I said it over and over. I treat them right. I don’t joke with our women. They are the builders.
KSA: And it is not an accident that you have three girls
JJR: True. I remember people thought having three girls would make me tyrannical because I’ll be taking my frustrations out on people. They didn’t realise that they were making me more and more compassionate. Yes.
KSA: How will you vote in December? Your wife, Nana Koandu,[who] we just talked about heads the NDP. You’re the founder of the NDC. Are you going to vote? How did you vote the last time, do you want to say?
JJR: Mmmm! I’ll like to make a confession actually. Was it 2016 we went to the polls? I voted for her.
JJR: As to whether I’ll vote for her again or not, I’m not going to say. But, I did vote for her then because she deserves it. She did.
KSA: And what do you think of your party today? What does that say about your party actually?
JJR: (Pauses) Lets hold on that for now. Ummm! Ok
JJR: I just hope and wish all of them the best
KSA: Of your four children, Dr Zanetor Rawlings has taken up politics after you. How far do you think she is going to go? What is your prediction?
JJR: If evil does not triumph she has a good future in politics because she is a very dedicated and highly discipline brilliant person. Ohh! Yesterday, I saw something she had [laughs] unleashed on Twitter. I couldn’t help getting back to her and saying, you’re amazing. She is sharp and I think the country needs people like that and I’m not sorry that even though she went into the medical profession, she is gone to politics to help prevent the situations that put people in the hospital.
KSA: Is she in the right party? When her mother’s party is the NDP?
JJR: As for that one, I would not comment on that one either. I remember that I said that would be her decision whether to join NDC or any other party. She will have to live with it, she will have to take responsibility for it.
KSA: At 73, looking forward to the future, your own future, I’m sure you will be around for a while. Your mother is 100, your grandmother was 105, so you’re not going any place soon, presumably. Your children what future do you think this country holds for your children and their children? Will the foundations you built stand at all in good stead?
JJR: (Pauses) I wish I could answer that question in all earnestness. But it’s difficult for me to do so because people who work so hard, slave their lives away, like [in] other countries expect an improvement in their living conditions but in Africa that is not what I see. And it saddens me chief.
Truly, truly, it saddens and I thought we laid a solid foundation that could have been built on but human greed and selfishness etc, the crave for power blinds to some of the good things in life.
But there again, talking about my leadership, I think I spent 40% of my time watching and fighting corruption and corruptible tendencies. Ohh! I didn’t compromise on that but somehow others seem to want it, to live with it. Others appear to welcome it. They profit from negativity. No! no, no, that shouldn’t be happening. You won’t develop properly. Yeah, chief.
KSA: Thank you for sharing your story with me. I really appreciate it.