This tribute is by the The Honorable Charles R. Stith who was the US envoy to Tanzania during the Clinton Administration (1998 – 2001) and is currently Chairman of the Pula Group, LLC, a US-based company that invests in high value opportunities in Africa. He knew Rawlings intimately and shares some telling anecdotes about the former leader who he says was a ‘force of nature’.
“From him shall come the cornerstone, from him the tent peg, from him the battle bow, from him every ruler—all of them together.”
Flight Lieutenant Jerry John Rawlings, the first President of the Fourth Republic of Ghana, transitioned from this life to the next on 12 November 2020. When the full weight of that thought hits home, it doesn’t seem real. Death and Jerry Rawlings in the same sentence seems to be an inherent contradiction. That Jerry John Rawlings is no longer among the land of the living seems to be a contradiction because he was larger than life.
Long before the era of people of stature – like MJ, Madonna, Michael, Cher – being referenced only by their names or initials there was JJ. There was only one JJ. If someone used the moniker JJ in a sentence there were few that didn’t know who you were talking about. That was so, not only because of the force of his personality, which was considerable, but because he was a force of nature.
He was a man of boundless passion and extraordinary vision. He was charming and charismatic beyond description. He was dashing and debonair. On cue (or at a moment’s notice) it was also clear that if he needed to, he had the steely resolve that would allow him to take you out if necessary
Those of us that knew him have a million stories that give a sense of who this man was. Those memories in some cases will provide comfort for us who mourn. In other cases, those memories will afflict the comfortable as well as comfort the afflicted.
I first met him in 2001 at a dinner party in his honor in Washington DC. Though this was the first time we met, his reputation preceded him. I was not long from my assignment as the US envoy to Tanzania and was recently into my appointment at Boston University with the charge to establish a center to engage democratically retired African Presidents to better understand Africa’s problems and potential.
A friend of mine, Percy Wilson, was aware of the program I was commissioned to start at BU and thought it would be good for me to meet Rawlings. So, he secured me an invite to the private dinner being hosted on Rawlings behalf. He even arranged for me to sit next to Rawlings.
In the early part of the evening, as most first encounters can be, it was a bit awkward as I struggled to find the right note to sustain a conversation. After dinner was finished we retired to the living room to partake of a post dinner libation and continue our conversation.
After a minute of awkward silence, I said: “Mr. President, let me congratulate you on the recent democratic transition in Ghana. There were a lot of folks that didn’t think it would happen.” This seemed to capture his attention in a way that nothing I said before had done.
He quickly countered, “what folks didn’t think it would happen?” I said, “folks at the State Department.” “Why?”, he asked. “Well”, I said, “the first reason is basically racist, in that so many folks at State don’t think anything in Africa works.”
He nodded his acknowledgement of the truth of my point. He then quickly said, “so, chief, what is the second reason.” I smiled slightly and said, “well you did take the country over twice by coup.” He gave me a patented Rawlings stare. That candid exchange evolved into a continuing conversation that extended years and across many continents.
He was the first democratically retired African President we hosted at Boston University. His engagement was a little later than we initially planned. He was scheduled to speak at the inaugural conference of the Center on September 13, 2001.
He was in transit on 9/11. As you recall every plane in the sky was required to land at the closest airport, whether scheduled or not. Though we knew he was in transit, we didn’t have a clue as to where he was. All I knew was that he took off from Accra. Where he landed was another matter.
After waiting by the phone for hours and then days for some word of where he might be, I finally called the US State Department and said something to the effect that the “former Ghanaian President Jerry Rawlings was on a fight to Boston to attend a summit I was organizing at Boston University. With all planes having been grounded, we have no idea where he is.”
I added, with emphasis, “we just can’t lose an African President, so we needed them to find him.” Within a few hours they found him. His plane had landed in Novia Scotia, Canada. Not only had the State Department found him, they connected us by phone.
After a minute of greetings and pleasantries. I said, “Mr. President, how are you doing?” In a response, that was as calm and cool as you could imagine, he responded simply saying, “I think I’ve seen enough of Nova Scotia.”
A man for the people
Jerry John Rawlings was not only a man of the people, he was always a man for the people. He could be relentless in their cause. Though some found this relentlessness (or stubbornness) a challenge, to put it mildly, it was what you got with JJ. That sense of responsibility, more grounded than a sense of noblesse oblige, was who he was.
The thing that will keep him a part of the national story of the Republic of Ghana for a million years is that this nation will endure, in no small part, due to the foundation he laid.
He didn’t leave Shangri-La. He did leave the country in better shape than he found it. More importantly he left the people one of the most enduring and timeless gifts of all. He left a nation that, because of a constitution and a tradition that began with him, have the right to choose and hold their leaders accountable. He left a nation that has been one of the continent’s most vibrant young democracies.
Earlier, I prefaced my remarks with a passage of scripture from the Old Testament. Though my journey has taken me to many different places, literally and figuratively, I’m a preacher at heart and preachers quote scripture. I found this passage from Zechariah descriptive of the life and times of Jerry John Rawlings.
Ghana has always had (will have a special place) in the hearts and history of African peoples. It was the first sub-Saharan country to shed the yoke of colonialism. Its first President – Kwame Nkrumah – a product of Ghana, London, Philly, and Harlem was the President for African peoples wherever we were found.
Nkrumah was the original Africa pan-Africanist. Unfortunately, he was toppled by Western forces and there were fears that Ghana would never fulfill its enormous potential. But then came a man, Jerry John Rawlings, a special man. He was, in the words of Zechariah, “the cornerstone, from him the tent peg, from him the battle bow, from him every ruler—all of them together.”
Kwame Nkrumah left the grand vision of Ghana as the haven for African peoples everywhere. Today Ghana is home to more African American expats than any African country. It was JJ that travelled the world extending a welcoming hand to Africa’s children wherever they were.
He was the cornerstone. Ghana is a country whose signature is that the body politic is one where the people have their say and political leaders are held accountable. Those before Rawlings (and after him) talked the talk, he walked the walk. He was the cornerstone.
I wish we could have conferred one last time before his passing. I would have shared the research that Covid-19 has disproportionately effected the poor and ravaged working class communities all around the world, particularly in Africa. I’m sure he would’ve taken up their cause, because he believed, truly believed, the “last should be first” and “the first should be last”. He was the cornerstone.
I’m a firm believer that God does not call us to eternal rest until our purpose is fulfilled. I’d like to believe JJ felt he could bid us adieu because the foundation on which Ghana now rests was established enough that this democracy would endure. I believe on 12 November JJ looked into the future and saw that Ghana’s promise was even greater than it is right now.
We should applaud him for that. The praise singers should give voice to his greatness and the gift of true nationhood he left. But, for Ghanaians, I say if you really want to pay him tribute take care and covet this gift he left. To the rest of the world I say, finally give the man his due. He was not the oft time caricatured African strong man. He was, however, a man of great strength and character, who loved his country and loved this continent. He loved African people the world over.
As for me, I will miss that wicked smile when he was about to give birth to some form of mischief. I will even miss the storms that seemed to level everything within the sound of his voice when he was angry or when his sense of justice was offended.
Jerry John Rawlings the world is better because you passed our way. May God bless you and keep you. Someday my friend we will pick up the conversation where we left off. Amen