01 Dec Against the Odds: Rawlings and Radical Change in Ghana
Ghanaian activist and socialist Explo Nani-Kofi describes his involvement in a period of radicalisation in Ghana in the 1970s and 1980s. The period found its figurehead in the charismatic leadership of Flight Lieutenant Jerry Rawlings. In face of widespread discontent Rawlings attempted a coup d’état on 15 May 1979, against the military government led by General Fred Akuffo. The coup failed and Rawlings was arrested and imprisoned. He began to speak in the language of the left and attracted the interest and support of Ghanaian socialists and radicals. On 4 June, Rawlings was broken out of jail by soldiers sympathetic to his politics, he then led a rebellion of the military and civilians against Akuffo. The Armed Forces Revolutionary Council (AFRC) was established under his leadership, promising to clean-up Ghana of corruption and injustice. The AFRC organized an election in September 1979 which was won by Hilla Limann of the People’s National Party (PNP). The civilian administration quickly ran into difficulties, of its own making. In 1981, after a strike wave paralysed the country, the government declared that in the event of further action all strikers would be arrested. The strike movement helped precipitate the collapse of the Limann administration. It was clear that the new democratic government was unable to fulfil its promises of real change across Ghanaian society. On 31 December 1981 Rawlings, with soldiers and the support of some left parties, launched a second coup and overthrew the Limann government. The Provisional National Defence Council (PNDC) was set-up with Rawlings as Chairman. Before long the possibility of radical change in Ghana gave way to repression of his left-wing allies, and a gradual retreat from the promises of pro-poor transformation. After several years, left-wing opponents were imprisoned and at the same time the regime became a test case for structural adjustment. Rawlings oversaw the introduction of the Economic Recovery Programme and called for ‘austerity and sacrifice’. By 1987 Rawlings the revolutionary became the darling of the IMF and the World Bank. In this ROAPE interview Nani-Kofi explains what some of the experiences were for activists on the ground.
Can you first of all tell me briefly who you are and your political background in Ghana?
I am Explo Nani-Kofi and at present the Director of Kilombo Centre for Civil Society and African Self-Determination which is a research, education and advocacy institution, which I have been developing as a social justice practitioner and grass root organiser. Through that I coordinate the International Conference on Africa, Africa and Social Justice every September in Peki, Ghana. I come from Peki and was born in Anfoega, both in the Volta Region of Ghana. When I was a child, relatives, family friends and neighbours were officials in Kwame Nkrumah’s Convention People’s Party (CPP) so I grew up in an atmosphere of CPP influence.
In secondary school, I got involved in the Current Affairs Society and came across The Dawn, published by CPP Overseas, and Amanee published by Central Union of Ghana Students in Europe, which were Nkrumahist oriented publications which were being sent discretely into the country. All this was given as orientation when I was starting secondary school in 1975, when my teacher was the Marxist-oriented Mahama Bawa. I then founded and became President of the Students Movement for African Unity (SMAU) in my school, Mawuli Secondary School in Ho.
Having been in SMAU, when I entered university, I looked out for the SMAU branch. Initially there was a SMAU note on the notice board and when I followed it I was introduced to the Pan African Youth Movement (PANYMO) then led by Chris Buakri Atim.  Atim was the Acting President of the National Union of Ghana students (NUGS) and I ran errands for him to the other universities often circulating press statements. By the time of 31 December 1981 coup d’etat, I was the 1st National Vice President of NUGS.
Can you describe the atmosphere in Ghana at the time, in the 1970s and 1980s?
On 24 February 1966, the first post-independence government of Ghana was overthrown through a coup d’etat by police and army officers of Ghana with what has been shown now to have been influenced by western intelligence services. Ghana was then ruled by a military junta of the National Liberation Council (NLC). The NLC organised elections in 1969 which were won by Dr. K. A, Busia and Progress party (PP) which was the successor party to the United Party (UP) which was the Right-wing opposition to Kwame Nkrumah’s government. The Nkrumah regime was the 1st Republic so this became the 2nd Republic.
The 1970s started with the devaluation of the currency by 48% on 27 December 1971 after the Pan-African atmosphere created by Kwame Nkrumah’s government was disrupted by the introduction of the Aliens Compliance Order policy which expelled Africans from Nigeria, Mali, Niger and other countries who had been living in Ghana. Radical student movements brought up the question of the declaration of assets by the politicians of the 2nd Republic. In response to this situation the right wing government of Dr. Busia was overthrown by the Ghana Armed Forces. The military government was initially popular with its Operation Feed Yourself programme, a declaration was made that we will not pay imperialist imposed debts and we will support African liberation movements. Gradually, the military regime grew corrupt and institutionalised the bureaucratic structure in 1975 by dissolving the original council and replacing it with a council of military generals. The military regime tried to institutionalise its rule and stop any transfer to civilian constitutional rule with the campaign for the so-called Union Government. As the regime became corrupt, the student movement grew more radical.
Before 1976, the external wing of the Ghana students’ movement was led mostly by those who won scholarships to study outside during Kwame Nkrumah’s regime. In 1976, the external students’ movement (Central Union of Ghanaian Students in Europe) integrated with the students’ movement back home under the umbrella of the National Union of Ghana Students (NUGS) and adopted scientific socialism, which created a crisis as the students’ movement was a mass organisation of all students in a neo-colonial state and such a programme and commitment seemed inappropriate.
The students’ movement together with professional bodies mobilised against the military regime. The students of Ghana had a national demonstration against the military regime and its Union Government campaign on 13 May 1977 resulting in the closure of the universities. Since that day, the week including 13 May each year came to be celebrated as Aluta Week with demonstrations and other activities. The military regime had a referendum on its Union Government in 1978 and rigged the referendum results declaring that the population had endorsed it. Further opposition created a crisis in the military regime leading to a palace coup that year. In 1979, during the Aluta Week, a hitherto unknown Air Force Flight Lieutenant by the name J. J. Rawlings took advantage of Aluta Week and attempted a military uprising on 15 May 1979 which failed; he was arrested and together with others brought to trial.
How do you assess the legacy of Kwame Nkrumah?
Kwame Nkrumah rose to become the main leader of the struggle against classical colonialism since his return to the Gold Coast, as Ghana had been named by the colonial power, in 1947 upon invitation by United Gold Coast Convention. In 1949, he led a breakaway which constituted itself as the Convention People’s Party and became more rooted in the masses of the population and was also more radical in its demands for self-government. Another great plus of his legacy is that the party was national in character and not dominated by a particular ethnic group as has been a weakness of certain political parties and ‘nationalist’ movements in other parts of Africa. As the immediate post-independence government, the Nkrumah administration embarked on the construction of infrastructure, provision of social services to the population, developed an industrialisation programme and provided employment in a way that cannot be compared with any government since. Kwame Nkrumah’s commitment to African unity, liberation and self-determination raised his stature throughout the African continent and the African diaspora triggering a movement for revolutionary Pan-Africanism. He wrote books together that made an enduring contribution to revolutionary Pan-Africanist theory. All together this posed a threat to the efforts by the west to continue the neo-colonial control they had in Africa. As a result of this the CIA influenced his overthrow on 24 February 1966.
After his overthrow, the political class, including some who had worked with him, came to a consensus that lacked his vision, an ‘agreement’ I have referred to as the ‘24 February 1966 Consensus.’ A number of the leadership and activists of his party integrated with others who had fallen out with Kwame Nkrumah to constitute new political parties. Any form of resistance was patchy. Four people were tried for a plot to bring him back to power. There was a counter coup attempt on 17 April 1967 but it is still unclear whether it was linked to Nkrumah. The only political party which departed from this consensus and maintained a genuinely pan-African vision was the People’s Popular Party led by Dr Willie Kofi Lutterodt and Johnny F. S. Hansen. This party brought together CPP elements who refused to accept the 24 February coup as a fait accompli and a group of activists with links to internationalist socialist movement.  However, Nkrumah’s influence developed among a younger generation of activists within the youth and students. By 1981, there were so many organisations inspired, in one way or another, by Nkrumah’s legacy and politics.
The conflict between Rawlings and these organisations during his rule from 1982 to 1992 led to a collapse of many of these organisations. In lieu of a movement, the dominant application of Nkrumah’s politics in Ghana today is to use reference to pro-Nkrumah politics to attack one of the main opposition parties as a group responsible for his overthrow. That has not helped in practice but has rather been a distraction that creates confusion about what the emergence of the two main political parties in 1992, despite their struggle for (and against) Nkrumah’s legacy. What determined the political divide in 1992 was the attempt to shore up neo-liberal tyranny of Rawlings regime against the struggle to open the democratic space to enable genuinely civilian rule. Rawlings regime succeeded in infiltrating the pro-Nkrumah movement by taking advantage of contacts they had with the left’s tragic flirting with Rawlings’ fake radicalism in the 1980s. In the process there are a number of people who were in pro-Nkrumah movements but became members or supporters of the neo-liberal New Patriotic Party that was founded in 1992; they saw the NPP as the only effective way to stop the military regime’s structure reorganising itself into a party under the umbrella of the National Democratic Congress also set up in 1992.
You were involved in the left movement in Ghana. How were you engaged?
I was involved in the Kwame Nkrumah Revolutionary Guards (KNRG) which emerged as a result of the People’s National Party, it was perceived as the successor party to Kwame Nkrumah’s Convention People’s Party. The KNRG was formed by Nkrumahists (adherents Kwame Nkrumah’s Pan-Africanist and socialist-oriented vision of politics) who were disappointed in the PNP so decided to organise as Nkrumahists with the guidance of his revolutionary Pan-Africanism vision of socialist transformation. I also organised students and youth under the banner of the Students Movement for Africa Unity (SMAU) which I was a member of since my secondary school days. The KNRG organised events to mark Kwame Nkrumah’s birthday and memorials for his death and on those occasions reflected on and analysed the national and international situation and looked to advance the cause of socialism and Pan-Africanism. One important forum which brought together all left-wing forces was the Progressive Forum of 3 October 1981.
From June 1979 to September 1979, the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council (AFRC), under the chairmanship of Flt. Lt. J. J. Rawlings which was a populist regime and reduced prices, executed military officers for supposed corruption and was very popular with the radical forces. This presented a very difficult situation for the successor civilian regime as the shops had been emptied The experience under the AFRC raised the expectations of the Ghanaian population which could not be met under civilian constitutional rule, conditions which were totally different from the populist military. The situation worked to the advantage of the Rawlings regime as people developed a sort of euphoria for the AFRC days and therefore Rawlings became increasingly popular.
There were a number of groups sympathetic to Rawlings – like June 4 Movement, New Democratic Movement, Movement On National Affairs, Pan African Youth Movement, People’s Revolutionary League of Ghana – the majority of these groups became sympathetic with Rawlings with only the Movement On National Affairs (MONAS) coming out openly against Rawlings. MONAS supported a call for a probe of the AFRC and also stressed the anti-communist statements of the AFRC as well as his attacks on Kwame Nkrumah and support for the overthrow of the Kwame Nkrumah regime. I was close with groups on both sides with some of my closest friends were in MONAS.
You were involved in an initiative of setting up workers committees in the Volta region under the June 4 movement before the 31 December 1981 coup d’etat. Can you give us some personal background to these initiatives and explain what happened and what went wrong?
In August 1981, through a meeting involving the June 4 Movement, Pan African Youth Movement and Kwame Nkrumah Revolutionary Guards with the support of Prof Mawuse Dake a programme of Workers’ Committees was launched under my coordination. These were decision-making and mobilisation committees of workers to raise consciousness and also to work as a group on political issues. These committees were political discussion groups, they organised community and work places , were involved in clean-up activities and also holiday classes for students as well as revision classes for those who had failed school certificate examinations and were resitting.
After the 31 December 1981 coup d’etat, the People’s and Workers Defence Committees were established as organs of popular power. Chris Atim, under whom I worked in the students’ movement, became a member of the ruling Provisional National Defence Council (PNDC) and national coordinator of defence committees. He appointed me the Regional Coordinator of the defence committees in the Volta Region. A former editor of the NUGS, Zaya Yeebo, was appointed PNDC Secretary for Youth and Sports, I was also appointed the Regional Political Coordinator of the National Youth Organising Commission. Being responsible for the defence committees and the youth movement made me the main contact with mass organisations in the region.
With the help of the committees, we organised the Defence Committees as units of community and workplace decision making. They helped with the distribution of goods and services. They arranged to get implements for work on farms and equipment for fishers. They were also a forum for political discussion where national and international issues could be raised by ordinary people.
As this involved the political activity of a left-wing nature it was mainly based in bigger urban centres like Accra. Yet I made efforts to get experienced organisers from the capital city of Accra, to assist us in the Volta Region. I requested the release or secondment of cadres from the capital. It was in this respect that I worked with Kofi Gafatsi Normanyo and Kwame Adjimah from the National Secretariat of the Defence Committee in Accra, and the secondment of Austin Asamoa Tutu from his workplace, the Architectural and Engineering Services Company (AESC), to work with our regional secretariat of the Defence Committees.
However, the way we did things was different from how the bureaucracy wanted things to be done – our involvement directly radicalised the government. For example, when there was water shortage in the city, we didn’t see why we should have water where we stayed in student accommodation whilst ordinary people didn’t have water in town. So we opened our university accommodation for the ordinary people to come and draw water from the university. We tried to break down the barriers between ordinary people and political leaders.
Contradictions in the regime and with its support base became intolerable. It turned out that the PNDC Chairman, Rawlings, wanted to have a typical military junta and did not want to see genuine popular organs of power but to have them just as supporters to shore up the military junta. This and other issues led to a total breakdown and misunderstanding within the ruling council on 28 October 1982 and Rawlings felt that he and the two members of the council most active in the defence committees, Chris Atim and Alolga Akata Pore, had to go their separate ways but the exact details were not known to the public, including to organisers like me. After that conflict, Chris Atim addressed a public rally in Ho where I was based.
When there was a coup attempt to overthrow the PNDC on 23 November 1982 which failed, Rawlings took advantage of the situation to frame those he considered to be his enemies. In our naivety, many of us didn’t know that we had been declared enemies. So on 24 November, Rawlings descended on the official residence of the PNDC Secretary for Youth and Sports with a helicopter and a fully armed platoon of soldiers. I was there at the time. He insisted that all of us he found there kneel down in public with guns cocked at our heads. After that, he declared two of our colleagues – Nicholas Atampugre and Taata Ofosu – were under arrest and directed the soldiers to take them away to be detained. Later, on 7 December I was invited to a meeting at the barracks and when I got there I was arrested and told that the Army Commander has directed that Kwame Adjimah and I were to be arrested and detained by the military. With the division in the ruling council, things started taking regional and ethnic lines. My closeness with Chris Atim, who is from the North, was interpreted to mean that I was an obstacle to Rawlings being in control of his home region. It was felt that I had to be removed so that it would be easier for Rawlings to control his own region. This was a tragic ethnic turn by the regime.
At the time many saw Jerry Rawlings together with Thomas Sankara in Burkina Faso, in the north, as figures committed to radical transformation in Ghana. This was never your position. Can you explain why you took such a stance on Rawlings? How did you characterise him (as opposed to Sankara) at that time and now?
There are substantial differences between Rawlings and Sankara. Sankara was a visionary because he took theoretical study very seriously as a sympathiser of communist groups in Burkina Faso. This is why we can quote Sankara today on issues like third world debt, African self-determination etc. Sankara was also very clear about the anti-imperialist struggle. Rawlings didn’t have the discipline or the theoretical mind of Sankara. When Rawlings was recruited into the Free Africa Movement, he saw such study and discussions as a waste of time and rushed recklessly into an attempted uprising on 15 May 1979 which failed woefully and put the lives of all he was associated with in danger. He was a populist who incited the population without any clear vision of a way out. For those outside Ghana, who didn’t see his weaknesses, recent revelations that he received financial gifts from the corrupt Nigerian military tyrant, Sanni Abacha, expose Rawlings’ opportunist character. Facts which are available today show that Rawlings is an opportunist who had other frustrations with the military authorities. These included his financial problems as a result of spending too much money on drinks and his army book shows his difficulties in passing promotion examinations and even the inability to handle his household responsibilities that senior officers had to intervene in all these matters.
In this short interview recorded in September 2016 for roape.net Explo describes his activism in Ghana in the 1970s and 1980s.
After a very difficult period you travelled to Czechoslovakia in 1984 and then to London in 1989. Can you explain your experiences there? What did it teach you about the communist bloc? What were your impressions, experience of racism etc?
Having fallen out with the Rawlings government in 1982 I was in military detention until a military uprising and jail break on 19 June 1983 in which political detainees from three major prisons in Ghana and various military guard rooms managed to escape. I joined the military uprising and jail break. The military instructed that anybody who saw those of us escaping should shoot us on sight. Some of my comrades were caught and killed but I was able to escape to Togo by the end of June that year.
In 1982, I was awarded a scholarship by the International Union of Students (IUS) to study in Czechoslovakia but I didn’t take up the award. But once in exile, I appealed to the IUS to revive the award and they did. As I never wanted to leave Africa I didn’t even have travelling documents. I had to arrange an emergency Safe Conduct document to join the aeroplane to Czechoslovakia. As the Eastern European countries were sympathetic to the Rawlings regime they were unprepared to grant political asylum to opponents of the Rawlings regime. I lived in Czechoslovakia for one year without residence permit. Through the award, I went to Czechoslovakia in 1984 to study and completed my studies in 1989. I was admitted to a PhD programme but as I wasn’t sure of the post-1989 regime’s support for the IUS, I sought asylum in the UK where a number of my comrades were in exile.
Despite the official declarations and documents, the majority of people in Eastern Europe didn’t feel attached to the socialist governments, certainly not by the 1980s. The ruling class was very unpopular and treated with scorn as well as being totally alienated from the population at large. It had a negative effect on many of the foreign students as well. I was, therefore, not surprised when the experiment collapsed in 1989.
Briefly can you talk about your life in the UK, your political involvement and activism?
In the UK, I have been active in the left movement. Initially, we tried to organise the left opposition to Rawlings from London but the pressures of exile made London the centre for divisions in the Ghanaian Left. In 1991, a group editing the Revolutionary Banner published in the paper that Chris Atim and I were agents of the Rawlings’ regime in exile. as a way of trying to destroy us through a smear campaign. With the collapse of the Ghana left, I participated actively in the general left movement in UK. I was a member of the Stop the War Coalition Steering Committees for 5 years. I contested the Greater London Assembly Elections in 2008 on the left platform – Left List.
How have you maintained your involvement in African politics and movements?
In London, I was the Secretary of the Afrika United Action Front which was a coalition of Pan-Africanist organisations. I was also the coordinator of the Kwame Nkrumah Memorial Lectures, the International Campaign to Un-ban Kwame Nkrumah’s Convention People’s Party, IMF & World Bank Wanted for Fraud Campaign, Campaign Against Proxy War in Africa and the African Liberation Support Campaign Network. I also managed and edited a pan-Africanist journal known as the Kilombo Pan-African Community Journal. Through these roles I networked with others involved in African politics and movements.
What are some of the principle challenges to a radical agenda and politics on the continent? What sort of projects are needed?
Until recently, a lot of the post-colonial world was looking to Latin America as a model to address the issue of neo-colonialism. Recent developments there give us further lessons, the importance of winning over and being rooted in the population at large and knowing that the capitalist class will always be on the offensive to stall efforts at social justice.
In Africa, liberation movements have either not been able to adjust to administering and managing or have been overwhelmed by the reality of the post-colonial state. The left or radical forces seem to have been cast to the margins and even those who were once major forces have become a shadow of their former selves.
I’ll often return to a definition between left and right by Emmanuel Hansen in his analysis of Ghana at the time of the 31 December 1981 coup d’etat where he wrote: “Among progressive groups and individuals there had for some time existed the idea that Ghana’s post-colonial problems were such that only a revolution could change them. What exactly this revolution was to imply has never been precisely articulated. There is, however, a consensus that it involves termination of the control of the local economy by foreign multinational companies, changes in the structure of production and production relations, changes in the class structure of control of the state, creation of political forms which would make the interests of the broad masses of people predominant and realisable and a programme which would initiate a process of improving the material conditions of the mass of the people. Those who broadly shared this position I would identify as belonging to the left. Those who entertained the opposite position that there was nothing basically wrong with the nature of the country’s structure of production or production relations or the nature of economic relations with Western capitalist countries or the structure of power, class relations or the nature of state power, and that only certain aspects of its functioning needed to be reformed. I would identify as the right.” I think Hansen is correct and I have long seen myself as being part of the ‘left’ in this definition.
Can you explain, through the long period of exile and hardships you faced in Ghana, Czechoslovakia and UK – witnessing as you did the murder of comrades – how you managed to survive? What forces in your life keep you going?
My father was imprisoned by the PNDC and my mother had traveled to the Republic of Togo when the PNDC took over with my younger siblings. In these difficulties I put the commitment to the cause above personal pain and I have never lost that internal driving force. When I fled into exile, my mother was with me, and when she was returning to Ghana, she told me that if she was arrested as a tactic of the regime to lure me back to Ghana, that I should never return and that she was prepared to die. My family’s support has strengthened me. My comrades who have been murdered haven’t done anything that I have not done, I was supposed to die with them. I think the only tribute I can pay to them is to continue on the path we were on before they were murdered. The other thing that keeps me going materially and psychologically is the unlimited generosity I have had from a number of compatriots. In addition to this, is the recognition I receive from comrades for my contribution to the development of the broad left In Ghana. All these strengthen my commitment.
Explo Nani-Kofi was born in Ghana where he started his activist as a socialist organizer for popular democracy. He coordinated the Campaign Against Proxy War in Africa and the IMF-World Bank Wanted For Fraud Campaign. He is Director of the Kilombo Centre for Civil Society and African Self-Determination, in Peki, Ghana and London, UK.
 Chris Bukari Atim later became co-plotter with J. J. Rawlings in the 31 December 1981 coup in Ghana and also a leading member of the ruling Provisional National Defence Council (PNDC).
 This party was banned and prevented from contesting the General Elections in 1969.
 These groups included the African Youth Brigade, African Youth Command, June 4 Movement, Kwame Nkrumah Revolutionary Guards, Kwame Nkrumah Youth League (formerly part of the People’s National Party Youth League), Movement On National Affairs, New Democratic Movement, Pan African Youth Movement, People’s Revolutionary League of Ghana, Socialist Revolutionary League of Ghana, Students Movement for African Unity each had an orientation close to Kwame Nkrumah’s vision.
 My closest friend and comrade was Kwasi Agbley and was the International Affairs Spokesman of MONAS and was arrested when the PNDC came into office and was imprisoned in the military detention cells and later the Nsawam Medium Security Prisons, the most notorious prison in Ghana for almost two years. We were both students of Mahama Bawa, who was the Secretary for the State Commission for Economic Cooperation under the PNDC. When the Left came into conflict with Rawlings, our teacher, Bawa, was in the Castle military detention cell and I was in military detention.
 Mawuse Dake was a progressive politician who was a Vice Presidential candidate of a political party in general elections in Ghana in 1979 called the Social Democratic Front (SDF) and became a minister in the PNDC regime but like most left-wing activists fell out with Rawlings.
 Most literature on the history of the left ignore the 1930s when the trade union movement started and the Communist International sponsored Negro Worker publication. During the period the West African Youth League led by I. T. A. Wallace Johnson emerged linked with the Communist International. Some UK based Ghanaians also joined the Socialist Party of Great Britain and the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB). It is difficult to say whether those involved became integrated with the CPP but there is evidence that some of the activists in the trade unions fell out with the CPP between 1952 and 1954.