Rawlings wanted Nigeria to be black power of Africa, says Akinyemi
In this interview with SUNDAY AIKULOLA, Nigeria’s former Minister of Foreign Affairs, Prof. Bolaji Akinyemi speaks on the demise of former Ghanaian leader, Jerry Rawlings, and implications for Africa, and other issues
What do you think the life and times of Jerry Rawlings means for Africa?
I think Africa has lost a man who is not afraid to speak his mind in defence of African values and dreams. JJ Rawlings was an activist pan-Africanist by character. He really had a vision for Nigeria to be a leading light not just in terms of worth but in action as the black power in Africa. He cleansed Ghana and Ghana has remained cleansed up till now. He was incorruptible. He was a revolutionary figure and not just a head of state in uniform.
The first time I met him after Gen. Ibrahim Badamosi Babangida appointed me as minister, he started by saying, ‘You Nigerians expelled Ghanaians and you expect us to have a good relationship?’ I allowed him to complete his statement and said, ‘Your Excellency, sir, you expelled Nigerians first’ and I quoted the year and who was president of Ghana. I said, ‘I’m not defending what President Shehu Shagari did. I don’t believe in the expulsion of fellow Africans but you started it.’
He was sitting back on the couch, then he moved to the edge and said, ‘Man, I like your style.’ That was the end of the hostility. He was going to pull one on me, but I pulled one on him back. From them on, I had a personal relationship with him, even after I was removed from office. The last time he visited Nigeria, we had a long meeting; I visited him in the hotel room and we discussed several things.
It was after his time in power that Ghana discovered gas and oil, but they did not resort to private individuals lining their pockets with the resources they accumulated from gas and oil. He would confront any western journalist, who wanted to be too smart on Africa and tell them: ‘This is what you did to Africa; you left and expect us to get over it after a few years after the mess you created in a hundred years or more,’ and I liked him for that.
Protocol wise, it is not right for a former foreign minister to claim that a head of state was a personal friend, but when you are a foreign minister of Nigeria, you have a unique position, which gives you access and I had a few heads of states, who were personal friends. Some of them are Thomas Sankara of Burkina Faso, Samora Machel of Mozambique and JJ Rawlings of Ghana.
What attracted you to these great African leaders?
What attracted me to them was the fact that they were strong pan-Africanists. They had a vision for Africa. I happen to know that Rawlings regretted so much the assassination of Thomas Sankara. He had an inkling of it and he told me so through a military contact whose name I won’t mention. He sent a message to Babangida, whether Nigeria and Ghana could jointly intervene in Burkina Faso to prevent the coup that led to Thomas Sankara’s assassination.
Can you share with us other Africans who wanted Nigeria to emerge black power in Africa?
Another person, who spoke for Nigeria to be a black power was Madiba – Nelson Mandela, who said it publicly that the status of the black race was tied to the status of Nigeria as a black power. That the black race will overcome the shame of slavery when Nigeria emerges as black power and this reflected the views of JJ Rawlings and Thomas Sankara. The first president of Cote d’Ivoire Félix Houphouët-Boigny also wanted Nigeria to be the black power. I met him because by the time Babangida came to power, Houphouet-Boigny had practically boycotted ECOWAS summit for a long time. We then decided that we could only re-invigorate ECOWAS by getting the French-speaking African countries to come back on board fully. And since it was Nigeria’s turn to hold the summit, we decided that the best thing was for me to go around and persuade them.
So I went to Togo, and because it was only Gnassingbé Eyadéma and General Yakubu Gowon, who spearheaded the formation of ECOWAS, Eyadema told me that he had no problem attending ECOWAS summit but if Nigeria really wanted the French-speaking African countries to turn up en masse, I should go to Cote d’Ivoire and talk to the president there and all it would take is one phone call from the man and they would turn up. So I went to Cote d’Ivoire.
Having paid my compliments, I then decided to do what I will call the African thing and said. ‘Sir, your son, President Babangida said I should come and pay his deepest respect to acknowledge you as the father of West African presidents and respectfully invite you to the summit. He looked at me for a long time and said: ‘Anybody with brains would recognise that the future of West Africa is in the hands of Nigerians. Look at our own economy and compare it with the economy of Nigeria; if you put our economy together, we wouldn’t be close to Nigeria, but nobody knows what Nigeria stands for. You continue to accuse French-speaking African countries of being pro-French, but we are pro-French because the little things we need, France provides them. A time would come when France will not be able to provide the things that we need and where we are going to look at is Nigeria. But what we need is some recognition and respect and that is what your president has shown me. I assure you and tell your president that, not only will I come to the summit, I will bring all the French-speaking countries of West Africa,’ and that was what happened.
So, he said the future of West Africa was in the hands of Nigeria. He treated me like a son and Rawlings treated me like a brother.
What lessons can Nigeria and Africa learn from Rawlings’ leadership qualities?
Some people have criticized the execution of those generals, including heads of state and a female judge of the Supreme Court of Ghana. But do you realise that since he did that, the Ghanaian political system has been cleansed of corruption. Ghana never again resorted to a system where public office holders line their pockets with commonwealth resources?
So that should not be lost on African countries, that if you have a political elite that uses the recourses of the country for development then you are on the way to overcoming the legacy of colonialism. That is the lesson African leaders should learn. He cleansed Ghana and Ghana has remained cleansed up till now. Number two: he was incorruptible and his argument was simple: that if he executed these generals, do they think he would turn around and be corrupt?
What people don’t realise is that it was junior officers in the rank and files of the Ghanaian Army that installed Rawlings. He had already been arrested for planning a coup and was facing court martial. So, he was in detention and the junior ones rose and went to free him from detention and made him head of state, and he knew that if he became corrupt, those same forces would turn against him and deal with him the way he dealt with the previous leaders.
So, it was not really a coup that installed Rawlings, but a revolution and that was why he was a revolutionary figure. I had my reservations about General Akwasi Amankwaa Afrifa, who was executed and I asked him why he did it, because Afrifa was almost like our own Murtala Mohammed. He said Afrifa was not supposed to be executed, but that it was another general that was responsible for his execution and that the blood of Afrifa was not on his head. And I think that is part of what contributed to his larger than life personality in Africa.
How do you think Rawlings should be immortalised?
To immortalise him, we could have a Hero’s Day, but we will have a problem determining who the heroes are, because nationalism will come into it. We know what Rawlings, Nelson Mandela, Murtala Mohammed, Kwame Nkrumah, Thomas Sankara stood for. These were all strong pan-Africanists. So, we all should subscribe to this dream of the evolution of an Africa that will be for Africans by Africans, an Africa that will overcome the vestiges of colonialism and neo-colonialism. The evolution of an Africa that will make the Black race proud, an Africa that will not be referred to as shithole. Like we had the #ENDSARS movement, let us have the #ENDShithole movement.