Ghana’s Third Republic lasted for just two years – from September 24, 1979 to December 31, 1981.
Ghana’s Third Republic lasted for just two years – from September 24, 1979, to December 31, 1981. Jerry Rawlings book-ended these two events. In 1979 he stepped aside following an election narrowly won by Dr Hilla Limann. Rawlings had come to power on the back of a coup three months earlier. He launched another coup two years later, overthrowing Limann’s government. The start of the short-lived Third Republic was another milestone that captured the complicated life of one of the most enigmatic political figures of the past four decades. The Third Republic was important because the government was democratically elected. Rawlings’ coup overthrew it and ushered in more than a decade of undemocratic rule. Rawlings was a polarising figure. He led two coups before twice being elected president in multiparty polls. He left presidential office more than 20 years ago, yet his political legacy continues to divide Ghanaians. As a researcher who wrote a PhD on politics in Ghana, and who visited the country for extended periods in 1985 and 1990, I was struck by the very different ways that Ghanaians perceive Rawlings. At the time there was said to be a “culture of silence”, with many people apparently afraid to express their true feelings about him and his rule. This was not surprising given that the country was under military rule at the time. But then, in 1992, a referendum was held. The result made it clear that most Ghanaians wanted multiparty democracy, not government by the military or by “popular power”.What is Rawlings best remembered for: his anti-Western radicalism, democracy, or political violence? Maybe all three. What is clear is that he was able to retain control of Ghana for nearly the entire period between 1979 and 2001. Most important, however, is that his political legacy included setting the country on a democratic path, from which Ghana has not deviated. Military rule structures and democracy. Assuming power for the second time at the end of 1981, Rawlings established the Provisional National Defence Council as the government. It was meant to be a short-term response to a crisis. The Limann government stood accused of wanton dissipation of state resources and economic mismanagement. The rationale of the coup was to restore public faith in the government. He also established political structures said by Rawlings to be the “highest form of democracy” – Peoples Defence Committees and Workers Defence Committees. But Rawlings soon learnt, military coups may be easy to accomplish, but what to do afterwards is less clear. How do you sustain support when there are no conventional democratic mechanisms, especially during a profound economic crisis? Rawlings expressed his scepticism of “Western-style” – that is, liberal – democracy. He did not believe that Ghana was suited to this form of rule because of the potential for exacerbating ethnic division and increased social conflict. Instead, he claimed he wanted a “revolution” to transform Ghana into a polity where the people, rather than civilian or military elites, were in power. But they proved not to be the answer to Ghana’s political woes. There were two main reasons for failure: the Provisional National Defence Council did not enjoy legitimacy or authority among all Ghanaians while the Defence Committees were widely regarded as the domain of the “have-nots” who sought to use them to advance their positions economically, often at the expense of others. By 1984, Rawlings had replaced his initial structures with pro-regime Committees for the Defence of the Revolution. These two were done away with after the return of multi-party democracy in the early 1990s. In sum, the Provisional National Defence Council came to power, replacing a democratically elected government, and Rawlings was not able to preside over a government that most Ghanaians trusted. Scepticism about the motivations of Rawlings and the Provisional National Defence Council was augmented by the fact that the Defence Committees were seen by many.