The Murky Truth

Former president of Ghana Jerry Rawlings during a state visit to Washington in 1999. Ghanaians have been riveted by Rawlings' testimony in front of the National Reconciliation Commission. (Photo: Stephen Jaffe/AFP-Getty Images)

For nations moving from authoritarian to civilian rule, debate about whether to forget past human-rights abuses and focus on the future has always been emotive. Freed from prison in 1990 after 27 years, Nelson Mandela presided over South Africa’s attempt to put the atrocities of the apartheid era behind it through the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) chaired by Archbishop Desmond Tutu. More recently, Sierra Leone’s truth commission has asked how combatants in the country’s brutal civil war could slice open the wombs of pregnant women and amputate villagers’ limbs in the name of a senseless civil war. Ghana, too, has opted for a National Reconciliation Commission to examine the abuses that took place under the leadership of President Jerry Rawlings.

Since the former British colony of the Gold Coast, now Ghana, gained independence in 1957, it has had a mixed history, with spasms of hope dashed by political incompetence, military brinksmanship, and dictatorship. By 1992, when Ghana passed its current constitution, the small country of 20 million had seen four violent coups. But nothing surpassed the intensity of rights violations brought by the coups of 1979 and 1982 by Flt. Lt. J.J. Rawlings.

On May 15, 1979, Rawlings led a failed attempt to overthrow the corrupt regime of the Supreme Military Council. The coup failed, and faced with the certainty of conviction and a death sentence at a court martial, Rawlings took sole responsibility for the attempt and blasted the military establishment that had caused so much suffering to Ghanaians. He further demanded the release of the other soldiers arrested with him. He was ready to die alone for a cause he believed in, he said. What mattered to him, he said, were the lives of “average” Ghanaians and the future of the nation.

Rawlings became Ghana’s most popular prisoner. On June 4, 1979, a group of soldiers fought its way to release Rawlings from custody, reorganized the aborted putsch, and made him chairman of the emergent Armed Forces Revolutionary Council (AFRC). The AFRC spent only four months in power, then handed over to a civilian regime led by Hilla Limann, who, critics say, failed to satisfy the retreating soldiers.

With vengeance on his mind and the vigor to pursue it, Rawlings returned two years later to overthrow Limann and, in 1982, set in motion what would become the longest and most brutal military regime in Ghana, the Provisional National Defense Council (PNDC). In 1992, he succumbed to pressure, organized rigged elections, and continued ruling with this disputed mandate. The National Democratic Congress government he formed, many Ghanaians say, was the most corrupt government the country had known.

Human Rights
Founded on the charisma and vengeance of their leader, Rawlings’ three regimes (June-Sept 1979, 1981-92 and 1992-2000) were driven more by passion than prudence. Having blamed politicians and businessmen for Ghana’s problems, Rawlings set out to eliminate his enemies. The AFRC arrested three former heads of state—Lt. Gen. A.A. Afrifa, Gen. Ignatius Kutu Acheampong, and Gen. Fred Akuffo—put them and their military henchmen on trial for corruption, and promptly executed them. Other influential military officers and civilians thought to have offended Rawlings and his friends in private life were arrested and tortured. Some were never seen again after being picked up from their homes by soldiers.

But the abuses did not only target the powerful. Soldiers stripped female street vendors naked and beat them up in public for selling matches above the government-stipulated price. Arbitrary detentions, confiscation of property, arrests, and tortures were everyday occurrences. Yet the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank touted Rawlings as an example of African success and muted local complaints.

National Reconciliation Commission
In 2000, newly elected President John Kufuor faced widespread demands for the government to address past human-rights abuses. But the 1992 Constitution had indemnified all military personnel from judicial scrutiny, making it impossible for those wronged to have any legal redress.

To get around this, the new regime established the National Reconciliation Commission to compile accurate historical records of past human-rights violations by providing a formal forum for victims to tell their stories. Established by an act of Parliament, the NRC is chaired by a former supreme court judge, and has nine other commissioners including a Catholic bishop and a retired general.

In most respects, Ghana’s NRC has used South Africa’s TRC as its model. Except for very special cases bordering on national security, most hearings are conducted in public with heavy media coverage. One main difference between the TRC and the NRC is in their amnesty provisions. The TRC had power to grant amnesty to rights perpetrators in exchange for full disclosure of their involvement in “crimes” under investigation, while Ghana’s NRC has no such power. But that matters little since most of the perpetrators are already indemnified. After a shaky beginning, with protests from the political opposition, most Ghanaians have come to regard the NRC as the most important human rights event in the history of the nation. For the first time, the nation has heard horrendous stories of how government soldiers brutalized citizens in the name of a “revolution,” and how many victims were ordinary women struggling to feed their families.

One witness, Grace Obeng, told the commission of how her two sons, both soldiers, were executed. The elder son, Stephen, was arrested for offending a “big man” in the army. After three days in a prison cell, he sent word to his younger brother to bring water to him. When the brother did so, he too was arrested, and charges were trumped up against the brothers for attempting to overthrow Rawlings. Both were executed.

Obeng testified that when she tried to visit her sons at the military base where they were kept before execution, soldiers beat her until she bled. “They pushed me down and stomped on me several times with their boots. They hit me with the butt of their guns till I bled. When I came to, I was in a hospital. I never saw my sons again until neighbors rushed to my house one afternoon with news from government radio that my sons had been executed,” she told the commission.

For many Ghanaians, the greatest moment of hope for national reconciliation came when B.T. Baba, a former director of the prison service, openly apologized to a man who alleged Baba had supervised his torture in prison. “We were young and could have done a few things out of exuberance. Forgive me,” Baba pleaded. The victim walked to Baba and embraced him, generating a thunder of applause from the audience in the commission’s auditorium. For many Ghanaians, Baba became a symbol of decency and humility.

Although by law the Commission’s mandate covers all military regimes from independence to 1992, Ghanaians are most interested in rights violations under Rawlings. No case has generated as much interest as the gruesome murder and bizarre burning of three high court judges and an army officer in June 1982.

Murder of the Judges
On the night of June 30, 1982, three high court judges and a retired army major were abducted from their homes. Their maggot-infested, charred bodies were later found at Bundase, 30 kilometers east of Accra, Ghana’s capital. On July 4, Rawlings announced to the nation that the murders had been orchestrated by enemies of his revolution. When international pressure forced the government to set up a commission of inquiry into the matter, it was found the murderers had close ties to Rawlings.

Amartey Kwei, who led the “operation,” was a member of the governing council, a status equivalent to Cabinet minister in the Rawlings AFRC. At the trial, Kwei mentioned an old Rawlings pal and then National Security Coordinator, Kojo Tsikata, as the brain behind the “operation.” The attorney general at the time, George Aikins, said that the evidence against Tsikata was not strong enough to prosecute him. Many Ghanaians believed that Aikins acted out of fear.

Ghanaians suspected official complicity in the heinous crime: Kwei was a member of the government and his accomplices had stayed in a compound owned by Rawlings. The keys to the Fiat Campangola used in abducting and transporting the judges to the murder site were allegedly picked from the residence of Rawlings’ wife. It was also rumored that Rawlings and his colleagues were upset with the judges for ordering the release of some people unlawfully detained by Rawlings during his AFRC. The nature of security at the time also meant only government operatives could have taken the abducted judges from Accra to Bundase through the many military checkpoints without attracting notice.

But Rawlings and Tsikata denied any involvement in the murders and hurried the execution of Kwei and his accomplices. Later, Rawlings told journalists from the government-controlled Daily Graphic that he had extracted a statement from Kwei on the morning before his execution in which the prisoner retracted his allegations against Kojo Tsikata on tape. Now Ghanaians and the NRC want to know two things. Is there any such tape? And if so, what is on it?

Rawlings and Tsikata at the NRC
To get answers to the questions, the NRC subpoenaed Rawlings and Tsikata in February 2004, followed by Aikins in March. In his testimony, Aikins said that Rawlings knew of the judges’ three captors before the July 4, 1982, broadcast in which he said that the state would find the “enemies of the revolution” who had murdered the judges and punish them.

Both Tsikata and Rawlings insist they are innocent. In his testimony before the NRC, Rawlings repeated his claim that Kwei retracted his allegations against Tsikata, but he could not produce the tape on which the retraction was recorded.

The case has consumed Ghanaians, who wonder where the truth lies amid all the allegations and counter-allegations. Despite the best efforts of the NRC, it seems that the full story will never be known. According to the Independent of Accra, “the truth is in the bosom of Mr. Rawlings.”