It is so well in order that tributes keep pouring in from across the globe to celebrate Ghana’s Former President, Jerry John Rawlings, since the news of his sudden passing, on Thursday, November 12, went viral.
But can any single tribute aptly define the enigmatic personality of J. J. Rawlings and his real contribution to Ghana’s socio-economic development?
The name Rawlings evokes memories of the many things he did and he did not do in his more than 19 years of national political leadership and thereafter. It is a household name! A lot has been written about him – more would be written, and many more stories would be passed on as oral tradition.
As the Ghana News Agency’s (GNA) correspondent (1984 to 2001) at the seat of Government, Castle, Osu, I got to know him a little more than many others did, and he touched my life in so many many ways that it will be impossible to share everything here.
I always marveled at how he bonded with all of us, from labourers to top civil servants. At the Castle, we affectionately called him the ‘Old Man’ and he was aware of it.
He once told Nelson Mandela of South Africa, “Mr President, my people call me old man,” drawing laughter from the officials and journalists present.
The young man in-charge of sweeping his living quarters at the Castle was always late and sometimes did not perform his duties because of lateness. Some people even thought he should be rescheduled otherwise, he might get punished.
But the Old Man had his own ideas. One day, he called the guy and asked him why he was always late, and also wanted to know where he stayed. The young man told him he lived at Nima and getting trotro in the morning was difficult because of the rush hour. The Old Man bought him a bicycle so he could get to work early. They became close friends and had a lot of chats.
His friends cut across the societal strata. To him, it did not matter what job you did, but, how well you did it. For him, everybody duly mattered.
He noticed at one time that one of his guards, who was usually vibrant and jovial among his colleagues, had suddenly become quiet and withdrawn. The Old Man suspected something might be wrong and directed that he be sent to the 37 Military Hospital for a check-up. Apparently, he had typhoid, with fever, and was dying slowly. JJ thus saved his life.
He asked me to do something for him and when I finished, he told me to see the stewards for some rice and beef stew. I had decided to have banku and tilapia for lunch that day, so I ignored his offer. Of course, I responded, ‘Yes sir’! But he was a smart guy, and had read my thought.
When I got to the Castle Gate, he had left a message that I should go back to have the rice and beef stew.
Indeed, the Old man had eyes for every detail, and all who worked around him mattered – he knew everybody like a family member. When I introduced my wife to him at a function, what followed surprised those around.
He said, “Divine, you have a beautiful wife. Where have you been hiding her?” I felt big, he made me look important before my wife.
The government decided to decongest the prisons and directed an official to work on a programme to compile a list of sick prisoners who could be released. The Old Man, subsequently, called the official to check how far work had gone on the list. Apparently, work had not even started.
He looked at the official and screamed, “Mr… if it were you…!”
He was definitely a leader- charismatic and powerful! However, his exercise of power had a human face. He wanted the official to empathise with the prisoners.
There was a time a PNDC Secretary submitted his letter of resignation to him. His reason was that he did not like the way people looked at him in town. He said there was viciousness in those looks as the country was going through difficult times. The Old Man refused to accept the resignation letter. He said, “These are the people I want to work with. I want to work with those who can read the mood of the people, not those who do not care!
When I told him that some ministers took their ministerial duties as sacred, safely leaving the politics in his capable hands, he agreed with me. He saw journalists as smart people who knew a lot and thus sought our opinion on issues. We had direct access to him, he knew there would be no leaks.
We were returning from Kumasi one evening when the convoy halted for the Old Man to take over the steering wheel. When we got to Accra he said his driver was getting too close to oncoming vehicles but rather blamed them for getting too close to him. He concluded there might be something wrong with his driver’s eyes.
The next day, he directed all the drivers to go for eye tests and some came back with medicated glasses.
It was fun working as a journalist at the Castle in those days. Our work was duly appreciated because the President made you feel important. The vehicle we were using for assignments was giving us problems at one time, so I approached the Chief of Staff to request another one.
He said there was no vehicle. So I asked him, “Should I see the President?” He replied, “No, give me time, I will get another vehicle for you.” Actually, we got another vehicle the next day. When I asked him if I should see the President, he understood. The Old Man gave the journalists a lot of power and the officials at the Castle knew it.
The man Jerry John Rawlings.
One day, the vehicle he was riding in splashed water on a pedestrian in the Western Region. He stopped the vehicle, got down, apologised to the woman and gave her money to buy soap to wash her clothes.
Another day, he was driving out of the Castle and when he got to the Castle Junction, the policeman on duty stood somewhere else chatting with a woman. The Old Man waited, expecting traffic to ease for him to cross when the policeman saw him and dashed to his position. When asked what he would do, if he would report the policeman’s conduct to the Inspector-General of Police, he said no.
He said the offender’s anxiety of what might happen to him was enough punishment.
One day, he got to a police checkpoint, beckoned a policeman and whispered something in his ear. The policeman responded yes sir, saluted, and moved away. Later, the Old Man told us he did not say anything to him. We laughed.
Jerry John Rawlings, your exercise of power had a human face. Our Old Man, you treated the journalists who worked with you well. You taught us a lot, we learnt a lot from you.
Jerry Rawlings was fearless, unafraid to speak out on issues he felt strongly about. When his once Vice-President, Kow Nkensen Arkaah, was asked what he most liked about him, he said, “His bravado.”
For instance, addressing an African Union summit in Libya, Rawlings stated that it was wrong for President Frederick Chiluba of the Zambia to have campaigned that former President Kenneth Kaunda was not a Zambian.
Chiluba was challenging Kaunda for the presidency and during the campaign said Kaunda was not a Zambian, so Zambians should not vote for him. Chiluba, consequently, won the election, winning almost 80 per cent of the votes cast.
But Rawlings was upfront with his query, “How can you say the man who led your country to independence is not a Zambian?” The hall went quiet, because obviously Rawlings had made that bold statement that no other head of state would like to utter at such a forum.
Chiluba, of course, later had his pound of flesh. At another summit in Zimbabwe, he walked out of the hall when Rawlings mounted the rostrum to deliver his address.
You were tough among the strong, yet gentle among the meek. Though you are an enigma, Sir, your tough love for humanity, arguably defines you above every other attribute.
But, I dare say that, You are the Tribute!
Thank you very much, Sir! Adieu, our Old man. Do watch over us from the other side of the ocean, as you Rest in Peace!