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Rawlings’ June 4 Coup: National Progress or Retrogression?

It was against such a backdrop, aided by perceived poor governance, together with the junior ranks’ disenchantment with the senior officers of the Ghana Armed Forces, that Rawlings led his failed coup on Tuesday, May 15, 1979.

Fortyfive years ago, early on the morning of June 4, 1979, a shrill voice pierced the airways of the nation’s only radio station, the Ghana Broadcasting Corporation (GBC), with an ominous message:

“The ranks have just got me out of my cell; in other words, the ranks have just taken over the destiny of this country! Fellow Officers, if we are to avoid any bloodshed, I plead with you not to attempt to stand in their way because they are full of malice. Hatred, hatred we have forced into them through all these years of suppression. They are ready to get it out the venom we created. So, for Heaven’s sake, do not stand in their way! They are not fools. If you have any reason to fear them, you may run. If you have no reason to feel guilty, do not move”.

The voice identified himself as Flt Lt Jerry John Rawlings.

In the aftermath of the announcement by the Flt Lt who was standing trial before a military tribunal for leading a failed coup the previous month, hush and trepidation engulfed the nation. There were mixed feelings on the streets; some were happy with the announcement of the change of government, but others too could simply not fathom why anybody would stage a coup a few months before elections.

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The uncertainty in the country heightened when later in the day, the Head of the Army, General Neville Odartey Wellington, announced on GBC that the military putsch had failed. Now what?

As folks resigned themselves to whatever fate had for the country, another military general stormed the airwaves:

“I am happy to announce that the hypocrisy of Acheampong and Akuffo since 1972 has been brought to an end. All members of the regime are to report to the Air Force Station or any nearest Police Station now for their own safety. We wish to assure you that election procedures will go on as planned. It is in the national interest. We have suffered too long. May God bless this nation”.

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This time it was Chief of Defence Staff, General Joshua Hamidu, announcing that indeed the coup had succeeded. Many regard Gen Hamidu as the greatest defector who broke ranks from the Akuffo Government to join Rawlings and ensured the success of the coup. He was subsequently appointed the liaison officer between the government and the army machinery.

General Odartey Wellington who stood bravely against the coup, Rawlings Court Martial President, Col. Joseph Enninful and his wife, were killed by the soldiers.

A 15-member Armed Forces Revolutionary Council (AFRC) was installed with Rawlings as Chairman and Head of State, to run the affairs of government until the elections were over.

The other members of the AFRC were: Official Spokesperson, Captain Kojo Boakye Gyan; Member, Major Mensah-Poku; Member, Major Mensah Gbedemah; Member, Lieutenant Commander H. C. Apaloo; Member, Captain Baah Achamfour; Member, Warrant Officer (II) Harry K. Obeng; and, Member, Staff Sargeant Alex Adjei; Member, Corporal Owusu Boateng.

The rest were: Member, Leading Aircraftman John N. Gatsiko; Member, Lance Corporal Peter Tasiri; Member, Lance Corporal Ansah Atiemo; Member, Lance Corporal Sarkodie-Addo; Member, Corporal Sheik Tetteh; and Member, Private Owusu Adu.

Captain Henry Smith, a hero of the mutiny, was appointed Officer in charge of “Special Duties” and the Foreign Affairs Ministry.

Before the June 4 coup, Ghana, a once preferred destination for many Africans, was perceived to have been crippled by social injustice. Ghanaians faced acute social and economic hardship – high inflations, massive corruption, acute food shortage, smuggling, and, black racketeering (kalabule), were ripe in the country. Transportation was a real challenge.

As if fate was exacting an orchestrated vengeance on the nation, the rains too had stopped and there were widespread bushfires in the country, particularly the farming areas.

The situation Ghana found herself in was appositely captured by Donald I. Ray in, “Ghana: Politics, Economics and Society”:

“The corruption or ‘kalabule’ of the Acheampong period, beginning in mid-1974, has stood out as a pinnacle of decadence which ranged from over-charging for goods and services to a system whereby top officials issued chits (giving loans or import licences) to young women who prowled the corridors of power offering themselves for libidinal pleasure in return for favours”.

It was against such a backdrop, aided by perceived poor governance, together with the junior ranks disenchantment with the senior officers of the Ghana Armed Forces, that Rawlings led his failed coup on Tuesday, May 15, 1979.

The grapevine reports said Flt Lt Rawlings was in cells when CaptBoakye-Gyan led some soldiers to free him. That report stuck until Rawlings angrily refuted it in one of his many fiery June 4 speeches 40 years on.

“I have given cover to a number of uniformed personnel who were not brave enough for June 4, December 31st, and others. There you are, repeating some of the manufactured 40-year-old lies about Boakye-Gyan leading soldiers to rescue me. Let me assure you, that guy never led any soldier to rescue any goat anywhere,” the former coup leader said.

Capt Boakye-Gyan’s reaction on the radio was perceived as a below-the-belt blow to a former colleague and comrade in arms. He disclosed that Rawlings even failed his promotional examinations on five occasions, and he (Boakye-Gyan) went to his aid as the Chief Examiner by massaging Rawlings marks on the fifth attempt!

“Rawlings is imbued by a feeling of jealousy and hatred for anyone who is above him,Capt Boakye-Gyan alleged.

The 3-month rule of the AFRC is something many Ghanaian families would prefer to forget, permanently. They see the AFRC as a murderous regime that executed General Kutu Acheampong, General Utuka, Lt. General Akwasi Amankwaa Afrifa, Lt. Gen. Fred Akuffo, Commander Joy Amedume, Brigadier Robert Kotei, Colonel Roger Felli, and Air Vice Marshall George Yaw Boakye without trial.

Professor Mike Oquaye on page 156 of his book “POLITICS IN GHANA” writes: “There were several extra-judicial executions of civilians, abductions, torture, disappearances, illegal seizure of property, stripping and whipping of civilian women and men (even in the groin) for engaging in illegal business, ‘hoarding of essential commodities,’ including empty beer bottles… Curfews were from 6 pm to 6 am, and that gave the perpetrators of the three-month junta the fillip to unleash the most venomous, sadistic cruelties, unprecedented in the history of Ghana on innocent Ghanaians”.

According to “The Library of Congress Country Studies” sources “From July to September 1979, special courts held hearings and sentenced 155 military officers, former officials, and wealthy businessmen to prison terms ranging from six months to 95 years. Additionally, the AFRC collected back taxes from numerous government officials and threatened to seize the assets of many others unless they refunded money to the state that they had allegedly embezzled or stolen. The AFRC also charged hundreds of military officers with corruption and sentenced them to long prison terms. Many civil servants fell victim to the purge and lost their jobs as well”.

Discipline among soldiers after the success of the putsch was nothing to write home about. It was as though the Ghana Armed Forces had for years been trained in indisciplinethe junior ranks seized many senior officers and gave them “patriotic shavings” (crude haircuts) for supporting the previous military government.

Foreign businesses belonging to Syrians and Lebanese were attacked. Local businessmen were not spared the ordeal in the hands of the overexuberant soldiers and the police. Several market women had their goods seized arbitrarily, some were even publicly flogged for hoarding scarce commodities!

Rawlings, however, denies any wrongdoing and states that whatever happened was a necessary sacrifice. On the executions, speaking as a Guest of Honour at a regional camp of the International Youth Fellowship at Adidome in the Volta Region, he said, “We had no choice. We thought let two go. Acheampong and a certain Utuka, are very corrupt Generals. They were sacrificed. It was not enough. Ladies and gentlemen, 10 days later, we had to sacrifice another six and some of the Commanders were innocent good people but it had to be done because the rage in the country was too high, too much”.

Rev Father Kwamina Damuah writing in the Catholic Standard in June 1979 proclaimed: “This revolution is not a wedding party. This is the time to literally baptize the whole nation. We do not love those executed less, but we love our country more. Of course, the executions are not the only solution, but they certainly form part of the solution”.

Others like Political Scientist with the Centre for Democratic Governance (CDD), Prof Baffour Agyemang Duah, sees Rawlings’ principles of probity, accountability and transparency still relevant today. He lauds Rawlings for his consistency and passion in espousing the principles of probity, transparency and accountability.

As to whether what Rawlings’ supporters praise him for: order, security and prosperity to Ghana, were achieved, lends itself to debate. Hence, Rawlings would remain an enigma to Ghanaians depending on which side of the political divide one chooses to roost.

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