The Jerry Rawlings I Knew

I received a call early yesterday morning before it was officially announced that the first President of the Fourth Republic of Ghana, His Excellency Jerry John Rawlings, had just passed on. It was paralyzingly surreal. Chairman or Uncle Jerry, as I alternately addressed him, was an exemplary manifestation of immortality, making it especially arduous to concede the reality of him being no more.

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Of all places, my personal connection to Chairman was born at a funeral, the state funeral of Edward Akufo-Addo, a Founding Father of Ghana and President of the Second Republic—my maternal grandfather. It was here, during his initial stint as (provisional) Head of State, that the then Flight Lieutenant Rawlings met and bonded with my father. Years later, he extended my father, who was not a Ghanaian national, an invitation to join his subsequent government as his Senior Advisor.

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I remember on a number of occasions going up to Christianborg Castle as a young child with my father to see the Head of State [whom he called Chairman, while he in turn, called my father Solida]. Even through my then burgeoning irides, this Chairman chap always came across as intensely maverick and valiant, and as I look back at his record, he proved to be just that: whether it was closely aligning himself with Thomas Sankara and Muammar Gaddafi against the inclinations of the West, or his decision to face off with Ronald Reagan in a proxy war that involved the first CIA betrayal of the US.

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Indeed, President Rawlings was quite the complex and even polarizing character. His detractors were and still are convinced that he was cantankerously self-righteous and authoritarian; his supporters, on the other hand, have always deemed him a necessary strong hand and judicious visionary. Beauty, as all reasonable types acknowledge, lies in the eye of the beholder. Be that as it may, in my own interactions with him, he was always attentive and particularly benevolent. My father went the way of all flesh while I was at university in England in the late 1990s, and Uncle Jerry was one of the first people to call me. His words provided great comfort, for which I have always remained grateful.

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Over the years, anytime I was in Accra, I always popped in to visit him at his legendary base on Independence Avenue in Ridge. He was always welcoming and relished philosophizing and sharing expensive stories. At the end of our conversation on one of such visits, I put a full stop on my declaration by passively uttering the Protestant maxim, “God’s time is the best.” Without much ado, Chairman expressed that he begged to differ. The man simply didn’t believe that things just happened; he aggressively believed that we have to make things happen. That is fundamentally who he was. That always stuck with me.

To paraphrase the wagging tongues across Ghana, a grand baobab tree has fallen and Africa is poorer for this loss.