By Dele Momodu
Fellow Africans, it is with sadness that I write this special tribute. The elephant has falling, one of Africa’s greatest revolutionary leaders, Jerry John Rawlings, has departed this world, on a journey without return. I’m totally stunned. There is nothing more terribly devastating and stupidly frustrating than the finality of death. I had tried endlessly to speak to former President Jerry John Rawlings barely three weeks ago during the funeral of his mum but couldn’t reach him. I’m glad Ovation International was with him everywhere. Perhaps, it would have provided some cold comfort for me if we got to speak, a kind of farewell. So sad.
The news had sneaked in like a thief in the night but it still came with a thunderous bang. My young Ghanaian mentee, Ian Okudzeto, had call me two days ago and he started with his usual pleasantries and niceties. I did not and could not have anticipated the satanic news he was about to deliver in the next few seconds. As calm and cool as the cucumber, Ian dropped the bombshell, as quietly as possible. “Chief Chief, I have bad news o, Papa J is dead!” I froze momentarily. God knows my brains shut down instantly. I couldn’t comprehend the mumbo jumbo I was hearing. “Who’s Papa J?” I thundered back in a combination of temporary ignorance and attendant frustration. “Papa J is Jerry Rawlings, your Junior Jesus!” True, I was fond of calling him Junior Jesus because of the Messianic roles he played in Ghana. Not everyone accorded him that honour. In fact, his critics called him Junior Judas. He accepted both monikers with equanimity. Oh, how can Rawlings die, I soliloquised! I didn’t wait long enough before I fired another shot. “Papa J cannot die, at least not yet,” I fantasized. “Please, double check the news and call me back. I too will check my impeccable sources…”
The news was too cruel to be a joke. I knew the former President John Dramani Mahama was busy campaigning in some parts of the Ashanti Region, so it would be difficult to get his attention. I called a good friend of mine, Ms Rosemond Gasu, a diehard member of NDC, a political party that was founded by Flt. Lt. Jerry John Rawlings. I’ve always found her very serious, reliable and well-informed. She confirmed my worst fears in a jiffy. “Papa J is gone!” It seemed everyone had gone crazy and spewing profanities, I thought internally. But it soon dawned on me that I was the one living in denial. These were Ghanaians right there in Accra while I was here in Lagos arguing with them. Ian soon called back to confirm the same story.
Meanwhile, my lines suddenly became excessively busy with every caller, mainly Nigerian journalists, wanting me to confirm the story. I also called my photographer in Accra to head straight to the home of Papa J and send me reports from there. I suspended all other stories on Thursday, November 12, 2020, and tapped into my very extensive photo library to fish out the amazing moments Papa J shared with the Ovation International magazine at different times. I doubt if any publication ever got Jerry Rawlings and his adorable wife, Nana Konadu Agyeman-Rawlings, to talk the way they did to us in their Accra home and country home in the Volta Region of Ghana. We also managed to capture their romantic moments for our lenses. Those pictures have become priceless today.
Jerry Rawlings had spoken to our team for a total of 18 hours, covering five tedious days, but it was worth all the trouble. This was in 2004, some 16 years ago. And we became a family. He trusted with classified and we never abused the privilege. For us, off record was off record, nothing to be divulged. By 2007, there was never anytime I requested the former President to attend an event that he declined except it clashed with prior appointments. For example, I invited him to Lagos, Nigeria, on behalf of the Gov’nor of the Niteshift Coliseum, Mr Ken Calebs-Olumese, and Rawlings flew with me with his entire family, (Nana Konadu, Ezanator, Amina, Kimathi and Yaa Asantewa) a record-breaker according to him, and it demonstrated his special love and admiration for Nigeria and Nigerians. His wife spoke glowingly of certain prominent Nigerian families that supported them after they quit power and they were facing the vicissitudes of life. Rawlings, during that trip, accepted our invitation to join the then Governor of Lagos State, Mr Babatunde Raji Fashola, for lunch at the Marina State House.
Papa J is gone! It seemed everyone had gone crazy and spewing profanities, I thought internally. But it soon dawned on me that I was the one living in denial. These were Ghanaians right there in Accra while I was here in Lagos arguing with them. Ian soon called back to confirm the same story.
Jerry Rawlings was the first African leader to be inducted into the Ovation International Hall of Fame. The ceremony was attended by his wife Nana Konadu who received the award on his behalf. He had attended the Ovation Red Carol the year before in Accra and enjoyed himself thoroughly. Rawlings had agreed to present our Cheque to the Kofi Awoonor Poetry Competition committee from the University of Ghana, headed by Professor Kofi Anyidoho, which I had endowed in memory of Professor Kofi Awoonor who was gunned down by terrorists in Nairobi, Kenya. His death shook me so much as I was addicted to his novel, This Earth, My Brother, at the then University of Ife (now Obafemi Awolowo University). His son, Afetsi, was only lucky to escape alive with bullets stuck in his right shoulder. It was such a great and colourful night at the State House Banquet Hall, in Accra, made possible by the effervescent presence of Papa J. There were other occasions we met and he was always so nice to me.
He was such a man of great character and amazing energy. When we encountered him in 2004, the first thing he asked was “Do you have the staying power?” We thought he was joking until we spent 18 hours listening to his uncommon tales. The Rawlings that spoke to us was indeed a man of passion for his principles, for his flying and undoubtedly for his country. He was a veritable example of a man of the people. He spoke with so much candor and was very down to earth. He had described himself to us as “a humble citizen of Ghana; a decent Ghanaian with a passion for justice and flying…”
And how did he develop his love for flying? “I was about six years old. I remember very well. Someone was distributing leaflets around where we were living in Adabraka. I was standing next to my mother outside that day and I saw that leaflet, they were calling for recruits.
“We were living in a house where you had other people, so one of the people there asked me what I would like to do, this was a few days later and I was standing by my mother again and I told the gentleman I would like to be a pilot. My mum banged me hard on the back. She said no way! You will be a scientist, you will be a Doctor. Those days being a Doctor was the in-thing. But that did not discourage me. I remember when I left school she had wanted me to continue and finish my O’levels but I had made up my mind to join the Airforce and felt I needed her permission so I bumped around for about a year. But she just won’t let me, so I had to move from her to my granny’s and later to my brother’s at Tema. Then one day I just saw the advertisement in the papers and I just went to join. I had a high recommendation. From that day, when I saw a police car driving towards the headquarters where we were being trained, I would be scared, thinking that my mum had gone to report me and they were coming to arrest me. Fortunately all the time I spent there nothing of the sort happened. I spent six months at the Military Academy and the other one and half years in Takoradi
“I had a few white instructors about three but the rest of them were Ghanaians, fantastic and very professional people. When we passed out, I won the speed bird trophy. I was being featured all over but those days we did not have television sets, but I was featured. My mother was invited but she did not turn up. I don’t know what she thought of it then, come to think of it I should probably ask her. My granny, who was my favorite among my older relations, was supportive. In fact she always wanted to have a taste of flying but time and circumstances did not allow it. I just took it for granted that she would always be there. But she died…”
Let me now fast forward to the question I’m sure you’re all dying to ask. How did Rawlings become a coupist? “I did not become a coupist. (Pauses a while). What happened was a revolution. You know we have but one life. Some of what we are seeing today are things that we have seen before. When you look at the youths today, you can see what appears to be hopelessness in their eyes, the future is bleak. I have seen soldiers very dispirited, being an officer in those days, we saw the extent and the depth of corruption not only in material terms but from the social point of view, they were just violating our own sensibilities and sensitivities.
“The spirit of the people was on the verge of being emasculated. Just to cite a few examples, the cost of living was horrible. People could hardly give three square meals to their children. I remember when I closed at work at 1.30 pm I will leave the station right at about 6.30-7.00pm because I could not just bear what a lot of the people were going through with their families. I went to repair the station tractor and on Saturday when there was no work I would marshal them and we cleared a vast area between the Airforce area and Civil Aviation Airport. We then planted cassava there for them to feed their families. Can you imagine some of us officers who should be watching out for our men were treating this people in a manner that was not correct? Here was I as an O’level student and I knew some of the ranks were A‘level students and two years ahead of me who were now technicians…
“The cassava was ready for harvesting one day, the men had done the harvesting and cleared the place. I felt pretty good and asked how it went. The men then told me the story of how they had harvested it and almost a third of it was taken by a middle senior officer who had come in his car and told them to fill his booth. At that point, I did what they did not expect. I told them if any officer comes here again and asks you to fill his booth, you have my permission to burn the car. I was an ordinary officer. But the point is the dispiritedness in the Airforce then was the same all over the country…
“The point is when these terrible things are happening in the society and it is clearly a consequence of corruption then you are asking for trouble…
“That was exactly what was going on in the country in the face of all this arrogant behavior of those in leadership position, they had clearly become intoxicated with power. It was getting dangerous. I know you in Nigeria faced a similar situation. It is like you are commanded by Generals, when the situations degenerate like that, people begin to look at the Generals to do something against who is in power. When it is not happening, the authority level of those we look up to begin to fall all the way down. I could not imagine that these people could not see these things that were so obvious and it was getting worse and worse, choking everybody. The anger of the ranks was targeted on us all because we were ruled by the Army, Acheampong, the ranks would say you use the mess, so you were all enjoying. The hatred from the top was transmitted to some of us and if we do not take some initiative, and they exploded, I don’t know how many of us would have lived.
“Three years prior to 1979, I remember I used to warn my fellow officers that it was getting dangerous. Some of them were these Marxist, Leninist reading people who were so steeped in their theory that they could not see the co-relationship between the thing they are reading in the book and the reality outside. And for some of them it was because they were involved in areas of activity where their stomachs were full, so they could not quite feel the pain like the ordinary person. The temperature was getting hotter and hotter. There were other painful experiences that I went through with colleagues. The government also at the time had destroyed the integrity of the commanding corps. The good ones had been compromised and those who would not allow themselves to be compromised had been posted out. You ended up having a situation that even if some of them wanted to make a move, it could not happen because the subordinates had lost respect in the officer corps. The situation was such that if an officer goes to a rank and said let’s move, he would probably shoot you first. They had grown to hate us because they felt we were responsible for their woes…”
So, how did they make the move eventually? Rawlings smiled before he answered. And he gave us the nitty gritty…
To be continued next week…