Accra Agonistes: Witnessing Lt. Jerry Rawlings’ 1982 Coup in Ghana’s Capital

By Deborah Pellow

In January 1982, I arrived in Accra for six months of research. Two weeks earlier, on December 31, Flight Lt Jerry Rawlings had led a successful coup. He was a junior officer in the Air Force. Two years earlier, he had led the June 4 coup; during his brief stint as head of state, he beguiled the population with his populism, proclaiming himself “father of the people.” After three months, he handed over the reins of government to the duly elected Dr. Hilla Limann, who was installed as President in September 1979. But there was dissatisfaction with Limann’s administration. For example, the shortage of foreign exchange and the government’s consequent inability to import many necessities encouraged smuggling. Goods were purchased outside Ghana at the unofficial rate and then priced accordingly for sale in internal markets. Workers could barely afford to feed their families.

Prices were inflated. Everyone traded to survive. A story in Accra told of a tin of sardines that passed through seven different sellers before it was opened for supper. The sardines were rotten, but when the disgruntled buyer went back to the woman who sold them to him, she exclaimed, “Hey, they’re not for eating, they’re for trading!”

High-level corruption had been legion. Money and consumer items meant for the public were appropriated by private persons with political clout. The reaction of working people in Accra was unanimous: “You see how our leaders chop our money?”

This general dissatisfaction led to Rawlings’ second coming, which he characterized as an action that would create “an opening for real democracy, government of the people, by the people, for the people.”

“Holy War Declared”: the head-lines in Accra’s dailies proclaimed. As I left the plane, I was face-to-face with a soldier holding a machine gun.

Under the “revolutionary” (as it was called) Provisional National Defense Council (PNDC) government, the news media provided a platform for propaganda and revolutionary zeal. They reported that the PNDC was fighting for the common man, seeking leadership among the masses through grassroots organizing. Articles extolled the workers’ appropriation of leadership roles. News stories reported that policies would lessen the burden of the common man.

There were communal exercises such as cleanup days in which citizens were encouraged to participate. University classes were recessed so that students could join task forces to evacuate the thousands of bags of cocoa rotting in the bush. Other exercises were not voluntary. Early in March 1982, in accordance with a clean up Accra ultimatum, store owners busily painted their storefronts and roadside mechanics walled in their businesses.

Prices were slashed, but the canned milk, fish, meat, sugar, bath and laundry soap, and bread became so scarce that queues formed daily as people heard of the sale of one item or another. Traders had paid high prices to purchase goods on the black market. The government instituted price controls, resulting in the traders dumping bags of flour in the bush rather than sell them at a loss. The price of Dutch wax cloth was slashed, resulting in the traders withdrawing it from the market. The shortages affected everyone; a chief justice could not buy soap, a government worker had no toilet paper. Soldiers mounted house-to-house searches for hoarded goods.

Thus, daily routines were regularly disrupted. Devoid of pedestrian and car traffic, Accra had the air of a dead city. Each new rumor carried with it more dislocation. The banks were going to withdraw a currency note from circulation, soldiers were going to inspect houses for hoarded goods. One of the more obvious inconveniences was the curfew – dusk to dawn during the first five days of the revolution, 8 PM till 5 AM for the next thirteen, and after January 20, 10 PM till 5 AM. All were indoors when the siren sounded. In fact, owing to scarce nighttime transport, the streets were generally empty by 9 PM. Accra’s nightlife did not cease, it adapted. Discos operated only on the weekends, from 3 PM to 9 PM. While people accommodated the curfew, many complained of cabin fever and sleepless nights.

Taken by the author as she fled the coup in Accra, July 1982.

The initial reaction to the coup was largely ambivalent, but even those who condemned the takeover admitted that the economic chaos was so great that something had to be done. Traces of tribalism and xenophobia emerged. Rawlings is from Eastern Ghana, a member of the Ewe ethnic group. People hostile to Rawlings claimed he privileged fellow Ewe. Others felt that northerners (many of whom are money changers) were being singled out for harassment. And classism was rampant. Anyone exhibiting signs of material success was assumed to be a criminal. A professional should have nothing to show for 20 years of gainful employment. Similar to the situation in China under Mao, education was besmirched. It was power to the people. And the people were empowered to haul those suspected of having too much before the Citizens’ Vetting Committees, informal peoples’ courts. The People’s Defense Committees (PDCs), based in localities and work­places, were organizing centers for the revolution as well as watchdogs for the PNDC. Top levels of management were expressly barred from PDC membership. Some people refused to join because they viewed the PDCs as Big Brother organizations that used empty and abstract rhetoric inappropriate to the Ghanaian context. Some just watched from the sidelines to avoid the disapproval of members.

Over time, a kind of nostalgia for the past emerged. Elders remembered the 1950s as the golden age of Ghana. The British colonial government was still in place but Independence was about to happen. The foods that the British had introduced and that Ghanaians took to were easily available. Items such as tinned milk and sugar became scarce in 1982. Some, especially the elders, wondered if life might not improve if the country were returned to white rule. Rawlings spoke of the days prior to colonialism, hoping to rekindle the pride of Ghana’s heritage.

Many people left, but many also stayed. The characteristic patience that has facilitated the social and economic disintegration of the country also enabled Ghanaians to survive. Individuals resurrected old networks to aid one another. And as a newly appointed ministerial secretary sadly noted, “How can I leave? I have no other country.”

Accra today is a very different place. The revolutionary spirit is long-gone. People complain bitterly of the vast disparities between the haves and have-nots. Displays of wealth are everywhere – in the cars people drive, the clothing they wear, the houses they build. Anything is available – a Macbook, a Mercedes-Benz, cosmetics, furniture, foreign foods. Unlike 35 years ago, people flaunt their wealth. The businessman with the Lamborghini parks his sports car at the Labadi Beach Hotel. The government is neoliberal through and through. Let the market go where it may. But many live poorly. Their mode of travel is over-crowded, cramped lorries. Jobs, if available, pay badly. Electricity is not reliable and most people do not have generators. And as during the early 1980s, among many for whom the possibilities of civilian government carried great hope, there is despair and resignation. The government has changed four times through democratic process, but many complain that little has improved. As in 1982, they await the next election and, perhaps, a new administration…

Featured image (at top): T-Shirt purchased by author during the 1982 coup

DeborahSU.jpgDeborah Pellow is Professor of Anthropology, The Maxwell School, Syracuse University. She is an Africanist who has been doing research in Ghana for more than 4 decades. Her latest project is multi-sited, exploring the attachment to northern hometowns by new elite Dagomba who relocated to Accra for their professions. Pellow received her BA at the University of Pennsylvania, and her MA and PhD at Northwestern University.


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