By Dele Momodu
Fellow Africans, exactly two weeks ago, I started this special tribute to our fallen hero and legend, former President Jerry John Rawlings. This was the man who laid the solid foundation for what the Republic of Ghana has turned out to be, admirably. Before then, that beautiful country had nosedived and was plunging the depths, but JJ Rawlings brought it back from the jaws of death.
Ovation International magazine had the rare privilege of sitting down with the great leader some 16 years ago, on five consecutive days, and got a total of 18 hours of unprecedented interview with him. Please, relax and continue to enjoy the incredible story of Africa’s most remarkable revolution:
SO HOW DID YOU PULL IT OFF?
(Rawlings smiles for a while)
“I had to do things personally. There were not up to half a dozen or eight of us. These are things I had not talked about. The situation was so volatile that you did not need a command structure. All you needed was to ignite it because the situation was ready to erupt. I could have done that, but I decided against it because none of my officer colleagues would have lived. We were ready to strike on the night of May 14 and I had taken care of my side, the Airforce. I had to go and cultivate men from other units. Infantry units, Tank units. I had access to the Calvary Regiment from there to the tanks. What you needed was not a command structure, all we needed was a commando unit. You would see tough macho guys, but when you tell them they become jellies. It was the small-framed ones that had the courage. I learnt a lot of lessons in those years. It took me almost two years because I had to personally do everything. For instance, I had to learn to lay bombs. You could not go and say teach me how to make a bomb. You had to learn bits and pieces. You realize that it’s not the regular thing, it is a clandestine thing. So, one had to tread carefully. I remember that when we finally decided to make a move, you see I did not tell them the date, they could get me nervous and say it ahead of time. Everyone was complaining, something had to be done. So, this guy, I told him to get ready, he started trembling and immediately, I found a face-saving move for him, I diverted from the topic and he regained his composure. Then I realized he cannot work with us, so you then had to begin to cultivate another person and that will definitely take time because you want the best. It’s not easy.
So, May 14, there was a full moon next to it was Venus or Mars. I did not take into account the situation of the moon. You see when we assembled at the Airforce station and I needed to break the armoury, we realized that we had to crawl a long distance because there was a full moon and we could be seen from the dispersal area, if we are not careful. Around 10.00pm, we managed it, broke through and got some arms. We did not need too much. We were ready at about 1-2 o’clock. I said we should take a little rest. They did not quite understand why. Why did I say that? Because, if we moved at such an early part of the night, what needed to be done was so quick and within one hour we would have achieved it. A few shots into the air and that will have been it because everybody was waiting for something to be done. I wanted us to wait to 3.00 am so that when we capture this, capture that, it will be morning and we could isolate them from the weapons and force the generals into what we may call a Durbar. We knew that there were many professional generals who could take over. Clean up the system and then give government back to the civilians. So, I told them to wait and as I laid back that was how I really noticed how full the moon was. The night of the 14th of May 1979, go and check it up in the lunar atlas. I cannot be wrong because I saw it. The interesting thing was that the day before, I was reading something in a book. The book was saying something about the bright star. The book said something like when that shining star is together with a full moon, fishermen don’t like it because it was a negative omen. Having read this a night before, and looked up and saw this moon, I wondered at the coincidence and began to think that this thing will fail. But we had reached the point of no return. There I was torn between two worlds. If I strike that early too many of my colleagues, officers and generals would be killed because the ranks were angry.
When I said go to sleep and let’s move at 4.00am what I wanted was to ensure that the boys were calmer. There would be calm when there is daylight, I believed that the daylight will have a calming effect, a restraining effect that would not be present under the cover of darkness. All these years from the time of Liman, nobody understood what I have just said. I had not talked about it.
SO HOW WERE YOU ARRESTED
The guys whose regiment we took over, Major Sulamana appeared on the scene. We had captured two trucks from the regiment and the guys who were driving the trucks were not part of what we were doing, but by that morning when we were in position, the officer came down, and the drivers were saying we should arrest him. You have to read the book, Pedagogy of the Oppressed (by the Brazilian author, Paulo Freire). You must learn how the oppressed person invariably ends up worshiping the oppressors. They can’t say no when they give them orders. It is only when they are out of the way, that they act. When the oppressors are alive and are looking at them, they are afraid they will obey them. The soldiers were insisting that I arrest Sulamana, I said no. I said no because I did not want any bloody situation. I told him to get into his car and get out. On hindsight maybe I should have. I wanted a peaceful thing. There I was having seized an armoured vehicle, did not want to shed one blood. This was a situation of a guy who had a potential to fight against you, but I let him go because from planning to execution we did not want to shed blood. That was the first mistake, I underestimated the effect of the pedagogy of the oppressed. Then other things went wrong, and we ended up being arrested. And it was Sulamana who led the counter assault. The point is that during the trial I was very confident. I was really feeling sad for those who thought they were trying me because I knew the situation was volatile. When we were being matched to go to face the tribunal, I could feel it. I knew the soldiers. I knew how people were feeling.
SO, YOU HAD NO IOTA OF FEAR DURING THE TRIAL
No. For two reasons. I knew I understood the situation too well, that it was dangerous. It will hurt us if we did not initiate the move. I had no fear because in some of these things you must be ready to die. Within that readiness to die for humanity, for life, for others, you are reborn. Do you understand? People’s souls were dead anyway. So, I had no fear. The other day, during the NRC sitting I made a statement that this government was trying to assassinate me. People were trying to ridicule me in the papers. They were saying Ha! Today you are afraid of death, drawing cartoons and saying all kinds of things on radio. I had not answered them yet. But I will like to tell them that I had overcome the fear of death a long time ago. I was ready to lay my life for Ghana. Things were just so bad. It seemed people had forgotten those days. But someone had to make a sacrifice to break the chain of poverty and suffering. And so, we decided that it was better to do what we did than live like sub- humans.
HOW DID JUNE 4TH HAPPEN?
It was a question of justice, the people’s justice. Before I even joined the Airforce, when I was in Achimota College, I had begun to have thoughts about joining the priesthood. When I left school, someday I will end up in a taxi and tell the man to take me to the seminary. Halfway, I will tell the man to take me back. You are looking puzzled but it’s true. It was a serious problem for me. I just could not stand the injustice in human relationships. maybe it was a partial escapist thing. But I knew if I was there as a priest I will have been fighting with my cassock. I am not someone who would go down on my knees and say slap the other cheek. I am not advocating violence, but in the Bible when Jesus entered the temple and saw people selling and doing what he considered bad, he picked the whip and chased them out. That is violence for a good purpose. He did not go on his knees like they teach us, to pray that God will deal with it.
As I was saying, at the trial there was nothing to be ashamed of. I remember during the trial they were talking of some technicality of either being tried alone or being tried together. I was the only officer. I got on the microphone and told them that I don’t understand this technicality, but I am taking responsibility for what has happened, leave my men alone. That freaked out the nation. The nation was angry at the military because just when they were about to organize elections for a hand over, who were these military people who wanted to stage a takeover. Naturally, people misconstrued it to mean these people wanted to stay on. Nobody wanted to hear any such thing because the suffering was too much until they heard the points I had written. The prosecutor instead of being defensive was reading my speech with enthusiasm which was a serious indictment on the government. I could have escaped at any time, but I was not going to. Right in the tribunal, I could have upset things. Before that Monday we had thought that we were going to be executed, anyway. There was this man who was going everywhere and was demanding if they were not going to save Rawlings, and no one seemed to be coming out of their barracks. The man went in front of the Airforce commander’s residence one day and shot himself. That maybe caused people to crack and they burst out.
I remember about 5am they were just firing. They had taken over broadcasting house that was the situation that led to June 4th. When you are oppressing people and treating people with indignity, when it explodes, you can offer them all your gold, all your money, they will demand your blood, because that is the extent to which you have humiliated people.
We should never humiliate our fellow man. The kind of humiliation that power inflicts on subordinates was too much. It got to a point that officers and senior ranks only feel confident when they were talking down on subordinates. Yet, the military culture abhors something like that. It teaches you to look at him in the face and tell him. And he must look back at your face and say sir! And say his own.
(To be continued) …