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Jerry John Rawlings, former military and political leader in Ghana, was twice head of state, and twice toppled unstable Ghanaian governments. He was born in Accra on June 22, 1947 to Scottish pharmacist James Ramsay John and Ghanaian mother Victoria Agbotui although he was never acknowledged by John as his son. Rawlings graduated from Achimota School in Accra, Ghana in 1966 and enlisted in the Ghana Air Force in August of 1967.
Soon after entering the Air Force, he was chosen for officer cadet training at the Ghana Military Academy and Training School in Accra. Rawlings graduated in January 1969 after winning the “Speed Bird Trophy” for best cadet in flying and airmanship. In 1977 Rawlings married his childhood sweetheart Nana Konadu Agyeman, with whom he had four children. Rawlings, now a Ghanaian Air Force fighter pilot, became increasingly concerned with widespread demoralization and poor discipline within the military, a problem he felt stemmed from Ghanaian government corruption.
A year later, Rawlings led a group of junior officers in an unsuccessful coup d’état. He was arrested May 15, 1979, court-martialed, and given a death sentence. After reading a statement in court explaining the social injustices prompting the attempted coup, Rawlings gained the sympathy of the civilian population. Just before another court appearance on June 4, 1979, Rawlings was released from jail by fellow junior officers and the group overthrew the government of General Fred Akuffo.
Thirty-two year old Rawlings was installed as the temporary head of state, backed by the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council (AFRC). With Rawlings as leader, the AFRC executed several former military dictators, including Ignatius Kutu Acheamphong, Akwasi Afrifa, and Fred Akuffo. Shortly after, the ARFC handed over control to Dr. Hilla Limann, head of the People’s National Party, and winner of the popular vote in the election that established the Third Republic. On December 31, 1981, Rawlings led another coup under the banner of the Provisional National Defense Council (PNDC). As chairman of the PNDC he became the head of state.
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On this occasion Rawlings and his fellow officers kept power. Initially the Rawlings administration cultivated ties with Cuba and the Soviet Union. By the early 1990s the administration became more centrist, reaching out to European democracies and the United States. In 1990 the Rawlings regime established a National Commission for Democracy (NCD) in response to rising demands for a return to democracy and civilian rule. In 1991 the NCD called for an elected president, prime minister, and national assembly. Political parties were legalized in 1992 and Rawlings quit the Air Force and ran as the candidate for the National Democratic Congress (NDC). He won with 58% of the popular vote. After helping to transform Ghanaian agricultural practices, Rawlings received the World Hunger Award in 1993. Although the opposition New Patriotic Party insisted the 1992 presidential election was stolen by Rawlings, he was reelected in 1996 and held the Presidency until January 2001 when term limits prevented another campaign for that office.
After 2002 former President Jerry Rawlings was a high profile anti-AIDS activist in Africa on behalf of the United Nations. After a short illness, Rawlings passed away in Accra on November 12, 2020, at the age of 73.