(Continued from last week)
In the 1970s, through the 1980s, the rash of military coups that toppled many democratically elected government, impeded progress in the affected nations, and imperiled their military. Mutual suspicion became the order of the day in the military. Neighbours drew daggers. Erstwhile pals became enemies. The fire of coups and other related hazards consumed many flourishing careers and Generals. Many young, promising officers perished either during or in the immediate aftermath of coups. But didn’t Mrs. Nana Konadu Agyeman-Rawlings take all these and other uncertainties to account before accepting the marriage proposal by the young military officer, Flight Lieutenant Jerry Rawlings? Or didn’t they bother her?
“No” is her categorical response. “I didn’t have any fear.”
She didn’t have any fears or she just took everything in her stride and prayed? Her answer, again, is an emphatic “No”. “I would have loved to pray, but the truth is that I didn’t,” she confesses sincerely. “I never did. I wouldn’t lie about this. I just took a day at a time, or a year at a time. Maybe it also has to do with what I saw of my own father too. My father was conscripted into the military during the Second World War, and he used to tell us many interesting things about the military. Besides, in those days, my father would make sure that he takes us to every march past that was held in Ghana. We attended most of them. Again, he lived with the military even though he was a businessman and he brought us up with very strict military discipline. So, for me, the fact that my husband-to-be was a military man never gave me any jitters. It never gave any nightmare. For me, it wasn’t a worry at all. The fascination far outweighed whatever fears there might have been.”
However, if she had no fears before marrying the suave young airforce officer, there were moments, within the marriage, when the former First Lady of Ghana had her heart in her mouth over the safety of her man, who Ghanaians later dubbed Junior Jesus for his strength of character and unwavering commitment to his country’s economic emancipation. One of such moments, which Nana Konadu admitted to during the interview, was when her man led the putsch that toppled the regime of General William Akuffo on June 4, 1979.
Prior to that, Flight Lieutenant Jerry John Rawlings had, on May 15, 1979, headed an uprising within the army, which the authorities quickly quenched. He was promptly arrested following the botched putsch. But he soon regained his freedom after some revolutionary soldiers, who shared his socialist ideology, stormed his place of captivity and unfettered him. Not long after, indeed few days to the scheduled general elections, Rawlings and his comrades struck again, and took power.
“The one that frightened me was the June 4 (1979), not the December 31(1981),” Nana confesses. “You know that by June 4, 1979, the whole country had collapsed. We were classified as a collapsed state, economically, socially, politically, and even culturally. Nothing worked in Ghana. Our infrastructure had collapsed. Our roads had collapsed. There were potholes everywhere. There was no electricity, no water, no food, and life was hell. Millions of Ghanaians were all over Africa, as economic refugees, doing demeaning jobs to keep body and soul together (especially in Nigeria).
“They were everywhere. All the teachers left. All the nurses left. They spilled to countries across Africa, doing the menial jobs. A lot of them were teaching in your (Nigerian) schools. They were in the universities and so on. A lot of them did leave because nothing worked. Life was meaningless. Everybody knew something had to give. Every now and then, the military intelligence would pick him up. This became so frequent, I got used to it. So, any time they came for him (subsequently), I kind of got used to ‘oh, they’ve called him again.’”
At that point, Nana knew that her husband, who at the time was always in military fatigues (overall) had been marked. In fact, she says everybody was, “because they saw anybody who did not want to partake in the corruption of the military at the time as a threat.”
Ask the former First Lady what kind of rot was prevalent in Ghana’s military at the time, and watch her trademark sunny smile vanish like dews in the morning sun. “By the way, what exactly do you want to talk about?” she pushes the issue back to you. “About me or politics?” While you are still struggling to find the appropriate words to answer, she decrees: “I don’t want to go into this kind of things. All we have been discussing is about my husband. He is writing his book.”
From this point, the interview became a ding-dong. Please, follow the remaining part of the dialogue, verbatim:
You were saying that he was being picked up, routinely, by the military intelligence.
Yes, but I didn’t use the word ‘routinely’. It’s your word. But they were picking him up because they knew he detested what was going on.
What was going on?
I think this interview is supposed to me about me, not my husband. I just told you he is writing his book. I’m writing too.
Just a glimpse into what was happening… That’s all.
Wait for my book.
Ok, when you heard his voice on radio on June 4, 1979 (Rawlings’ first coming), what was your initial reaction?
Actually, I didn’t hear his voice.
How did you learn about the coup?
Somebody came to the house and said…
Something had happened?
Yeah, I think, one of the military guys. Really, what are we talking about?
We are talking about December 31…
(Cuts in…) Let’s leave this. I have given you the beginning. It’s okay. I am writing my book. Let’s move on.
Okay, could you tell us about your movement, the 31st December Women’s Movement? What informed it?
The 31 December Women’s Movement was formed as a result of the revolution of 1981, December 31, 1981. The country was on its knees, literally, and a lot of people had left the country. And the revolution started. My husband had made an announcement that everybody should be part of the revolution. He said, ‘you are either part of the revolution or you are against it’. He said you could not sit on the fence. So, you have to be part of the revolution. He used to have a slogan, something like, it’s either you are part of those who had created the problem, or you are part of those who want to solve it. You are either part of the problem or part of the solution. The women wanted to be a part of the solution but it was difficult because, as usual, the men were elbowing us out.
Some women came to me and told me about it. Myself, I went to two of their meetings, the one for Peoples Defence Committee, and Workers Defence Committee, and their executives. I went to the meetings, and it was clear that everybody was fighting for positions and other things but the issue of women was not part of the agenda. Apart from that, when women had opinions, and they put their hands up, they (the men) won’t even call them. If they were making committees, it’s either they were making women the secretary or the treasurer, and so on.
So, I saw what the women were talking about and I agreed with them that we should set up our own organization, which would then help to change the lives of women because we were going through a very dynamic change. And it’s the only opportunity we had to be part of this great change. If we let it slip by us, we would remain where we are. Then, we decided to set up an organization and we called it the 31st December Women’s Movement after the revolution.
Is part of the objective to get Ghanaian women interested in leadership?
Oh yes! Leadership in politics, leadership in matters relating to the economy, leadership at all levels, whether it’s in the village or in the nation. Women must be part of the decision-making process. They should be employed or self-employed or start something that would make them compete or, at least, give them some level of independence. They should look at how they are going to care for their children. Then, we looked at how we would process whatever we make so that they can make money. So, we went into food processing. We went into political education. We went into construction of early childhood development centres (for working mothers), to leave their children there.
We were also into immunization. Once we had children, we gave them their immunization. We gave them one meal a day. We gave them tuition. We prepared them for class one. We did things that improved on the qualities of the child as they are entering the mainstream school. Generally, this was what 31st December Women’s Movement was about. But we expanded it because we wanted to have a multi-sectoral approach to how women are looked at, because women are multi-sectoral. So, we crisscrossed the country. Though we were not an economic organization, we were really multi-faceted. And everything we did was for the betterment of the Ghanaian woman, for the betterment of the Ghanaian child, and, by implication, for the betterment of the community, and the country.
Now, let’s talk about something curious. Your husband is in the National Democratic Congress, NDC, the party that produced the current president. You have your own political organization, the National Democratic Party, NDP. And you are husband and wife, living under the same roof. I would have presumed that the two of you should have been in the same party…
There is nothing curious about that. I was in the NDC. I helped build the NDC. I brought the symbols. When your oga came here, they said they wanted to use our symbols. I gave him all the materials, and then they went ahead and did the PDP (Peoples Democratic Party). After that, they were even pretending that they started before us. But we started five years before them (laughs). I was in the NDC but the principles with which we started the NDC have been thrown overboard. And he said we had to look for a new vehicle where honesty…
Who said? Your husband?
Yes. He said we had to look for a party where honesty, probity, accountability, truthfulness, social justice, social values reign. He said we should look for a party that espouses social justice, respects our traditional values, respects the way we were brought up, and so on. He said we should be able to bring all these to bear in our party. We should start something else, something new. That is why we started the NDP.
But he remained in NDC?
Yes, he is the founder.
And you see no contradiction in that?
None at all. I don’t see any contradiction because in 1992, we had the NDC that had the principles of Rawlings. We had the NCP that had the principles of Rawlings, even though he was not their patron. Then, we had the DPP, where he was one of the founders. Everybody wanted him to be founder of his or her party. Then, there was the Eagle, where he was also one of the founding members. So, there is no contradiction, in so far the aims, the objectives and the principles are the same.
Would part of the objectives also be for you to get a solid political platform to achieve your own political ambition?
He was not looking at it that way at that time.
At what time did he start looking at it that way?
I think he still doesn’t look at it that way. Because he thinks that every party should have certain principles that would advance the objectivity of Ghana and Ghanaians. He is an interesting person to talk to. There was definitely no contradiction.
Was part of the objectives not to provide a platform for you to run for elected office?
No. That was not it.
It came later?
It came later.
What brought it about?
As we moved on, and the party was getting really big, the other party panicked. NDC panicked. Let me just say things didn’t go the way they should have.
You spoke about the Rawlings Principles, what are they?
Social justice is one of them. And he was not looking at social justice from a myopic point of view. No. He was looking at it from a very broad perspective. He was thinking and looking for social justice that leads to development and peace. Without social justice, you cannot have any of these three because in-between social justice and the rest, you fit in the issue of accountability. You have to be accountable to the people; you have to be accountable even to yourself.
And to your creator…
Oh yes. Most importantly, you have to be accountable to the Creator. You may think He (the creator) cannot come down and say anything but He has representatives among the people you are serving, and they are very important. And it is important to do what is right and just. So, he (Rawlings) put a lot of emphasis on probity and accountability. And there are people in Ghana today in the party who don’t even believe in it at all. They said he impoverished them.
In our country, Nigeria, the general perception of your husband is that of a game changer. Many people believe that were it not for Rawlings, perhaps, Ghana would still have been tottering in darkness. In fact, anytime things go awry in our country, especially on the issue of official corruption, most people usually recourse to praying for a Rawlings Revolution to straighten things out. When you hear this kind of thing, how do you feel, as somebody who has shared this man with the world?
It’s both gratifying and sad. It’s sad because there should not be just one person who sees things in a certain way. There should be many more. I am sure there are, but because of the way politics goes, not just here but in other parts of Africa, people keep away. But if good people keep away, bad people will rule. It’s sad in that respect. But it’s good for us because it means that people actually noticed that he did things selflessly. He didn’t do them because he needed to get houses or money or whatever else that people get out of it.
Look at your house, it’s so modest. When we were driving through the gate and I saw the simplicity of the residence, I said: what? I said this could not be Rawlings’ house. But do majority of Ghanaians perceive your husband the same way we see him outside?
Majority, yes. But there are also some who are doing things they know he doesn’t like, so they resorted to using people to really paint him black and bring him down. But majority of the people think it is right to do what is right. They see him as somebody who built this country, who brought democracy and the rule of law. But it’s still kind of shaky. They should have kept on the straight and narrow path.
I want to come back to you. You spent 19 years as Ghana’s First Lady. What was the experience like?
I didn’t have the opportunity to enjoy the position of First Lady.
Because I was working in the villages. I was working out of Accra, trying to get the women, empowering the women to stand on their feet. I was sleeping in the villages. And if I may inform you, there were no palaces in the villages. There were no roads. It was very difficult for the first 10 years. I was just helping to get the women to have confidence in themselves, assuring them that they can do something for themselves. So, I didn’t have the time to play the role of the First Lady. If there was going to be something in town, they would call me, that I had to be there. Then, I would rush back. After the event, I would go back. I tried to perform my duties as the First Lady but it was without much comfort. And when I was going somewhere, maybe I would have two cars-one for security, one for me.
Two cars for the First Lady?
Yes, two cars. When he was president, there were always two cars.
And if something happened on the road?
Then, I would sit in the other one.
Suppose somebody wants to attack you?
Why would anybody attack me?
But don’t you think that was too much of a risk, especially granting the manner of your husband’s ascendancy to power?
Not in those days. It’s now we are hearing that they even shoot when they are driving. Not in those days. I think that for any group of people, if you lead them well, if you do what is right and just, if they see you are honest, they will take care of you. They would be your shield and security. For instance, I could go and stay in any village. They would give me their best house, and I would say ‘no, you don’t have to give me the best house. I want to be where you are and feel what you feel.’ And they would come in their numbers. They would sing and dance; and I would sing and dance with them. I think honest leadership is so important, because that is your protection really.
Quality and honest leadership, both are essential because you could give quality leadership and you are stealing!
Is that possible?
Quite possible. I can give you quality leadership and still be dishonest. For example, let’s say you hired me to run your factory. And I am running things for you exactly the way you want me to run them, and I’m achieving results, making profit for you. As a businessman, your main concern is the bottom-line. You only look at the bottom-line, the profit the company makes, which may be impressive to you. But unknown to you, I am doing something on the side, for myself. Is that not dishonesty? So, quality does not mean honesty. Both honesty and quality are important. So, we were very close to the people because we provided honest and quality leadership.
And that guaranteed your security?
Yes, it did. Like I didn’t need a convoy of 50 cars to feel safe. In fact, I didn’t need a convoy at all. It (honest and quality leadership) is still our security because look at me now. I am here. Do I have security? No, I don’t have.
In fact, I walked into your office, almost unchallenged.
Let me also inform you that I still go to the villages and I don’t go with security.
But were you not doing all that, at that point in time, in order to get the women logged on to the revolution? Was that not part of the motivation for what you were doing?
It was not because I wanted them to log on to the revolution. I thought that this was an opportunity for us to do things that would change the life and the face of the Ghanaian woman. It was an opportunity, because there was euphoria (over the revolution in the land). Everybody wanted to be part of the change. They wanted to show that they belonged. They wanted to be part of it. And if the women stayed back, when things cooled down, they would be the one set back. So, I said no, if they are running, run with them. If they are sitting down to discuss where they should put water, go there and tell them you don’t want the water in Tema, but you want it at so, so village. If they ask that they want to build a canteen to supply food or to have a drink-and-relaxation centre, you tell them: first, let’s put water in the village before we think of where to sit and drink. Stuffs like that… I was educating them politically, socially and economically, and culturally too.
So, when exactly did you start enjoying the office of First Lady?
I never did. When he became president, I continued with the work. This time, I was trying to give them economic empowerment by packaging their garri and exporting it for them, bringing back their money. I was trying to empower them economically by bringing Body Shop into the northern region, letting them meet our women who were into shea butter and then linking them up so they can sell their shea butter to Body Shop. It was because of us that Body Shop started doing shea butter creams, because we were supplying him with shea butter to make hair cream and so on.
I was also empowering them by teaching them real economic exchanges internationally, sending their buga basket all the way to Germany, bringing the Germans to deal with them, teaching them negotiation skills so that white people would not come and cheat us; and giving them the tools to work. We gave them everything they needed. Then, I moved from just educating people and conscientising them to an area of economic benefit for themselves, their communities, their children; making sure their children from the Day Care Centers continue in bigger schools; making sure they embrace family planning methods; planting trees around their villages so that the villages are not bare and exposed to the vagaries of weather, and so on.
Elsewhere somebody in your position would have built a financial empire for herself. But here you are telling me that you were combing the villages…
I probably should have (laughs).
Like having mansions, having your own companies…
I don’t have and I’m not complaining.
Not a single company?
None at all.
So, how do you survive?
That is the question. We manage.
How much does the state pay you?
The state hasn’t paid me any thing yet. They should because they are paying the other First Ladies. I am just waiting.
How were you taking care of the house if you were in the bush (villages) most of the time?
Yes, I was always on the move but I had house-help.
How about your husband?
We didn’t stay in the State House. I made sure that they gave me a bungalow somewhere here. So, I was staying with my children because I didn’t want them to get trapped in the trappings of power because people can really mess up children’s mind by their ‘Oh, he is the president’s son,’ ‘Oh, the president’s daughter.’ No, we had none of that. I never allowed it. I was determined to make sure that they grow up like normal children.
For me, there was no ‘this is the president’s son’ or ‘this is the president’s daughter’ stuff. If we had only two bowls of rice in the house, that’s what we would cook and eat. We never allowed ourselves to drift from reality. We led normal life; we were close to the people. That way, we always knew what was happening in the country. We knew whether things were too expensive or not because we were living like ordinary Ghanaians. My children were going to schools here (in Accra), and my mother had a kindergarten and from there…
Were your children not going to school with escorts?
No escorts. I would drive them to school; sometimes I would get my driver to drive them to school. One day, I was taking my children to school and then the car broke down. I know how to start a car but somebody has to push. So, I got the three of them to get down, except the little ones and I said, ‘You guys would have to try and push.’ They said ‘But mummy, we’ve never pushed a car!’ I said you have to try. So, they got down and started pushing. Now, one guy was driving by, and stopped, and said, ‘Haba! Mrs. Rawlings, are you not overdoing this workers’ mentality thing? I said, ‘No, I’m not.’ He said, ‘I’m coming.’
Then, he parked his car and he came and pushed the car out of the way, and parked it. He said, ‘Let me take your children to school.’ He took them to school and then came back, and brought me to the house. I then organized for the car to be brought back. There were difficult times. Nobody was thinking of the First Lady. We were doing revolution and you were talking about the First Lady? And I think I didn’t get anything because I didn’t kick a force. If I had kicked a force maybe it would have been different. It was only after my time that I realized the grandiose nature of the ‘office’ of the First Lady, and I was like, ‘oh, okay.’ But we came to build, they came to enjoy. Two different things.
Ok, what about the last nine years of your tenure as First Lady? How was it?
The last eight years, you mean?
No. You know you spent 19 years altogether…
No, it was 18 years. It was from December 31, 1981(that Rawlings struck again). So, the beginning was like January 1(1982).
What were the peculiar challenges you had raising your children?
The difficulty was trying to give them training even as I was on the move. So, anytime they were on holidays, they would go with me. They understood what we were doing. They would go to the villages with me. They would go to the towns with me. Sometimes, we stayed with the regional administration. Sometimes, we stayed in district administration. Sometimes, we slept in people’s houses. All these helped them also to be open-minded. They knew the poverty level in Ghana. They are very political people. They try to live according to the virtues we have taught them. So, it hasn’t been rosy for them. It’s been difficult for them.
How many of them are you blessed with?
Four. One boy, three girls.
Which of them has the Rawlings principles?
All of them.
They live by the same stern but admirable principles that their father did, still does?
I cannot measure by tape, but I measure by the way they live, because they went to universities in the UK. The first one wanted to read medicine here in Ghana, but by that time, the lecturers went on strike. So, she was at home for about a year and a half. I even put her in a school because the university was just not opening. Then, in the second year, she said ‘mummy, I can’t continue to stay at home. I have to start.’ Meanwhile, she had done her application here (in Ghana) but also did some applications in Europe. And she got three schools because she wanted to do Medicine.
Now, this part will interest you. Like I said, she applied to the medical school here and the letter we had was that they were going to have an exam. Now, they were 7, 000 students or 3, 800 that wrote the exam, and she placed seventh, an excellent result by any standard. But they sent us a letter saying that even though she was good, they had to study her to see if she had the aptitude for medicine. So, they offered her Biological Science. She was not admitted to the medical school despite her brilliant performance. So, she said ‘mum, I am not going to stay here. I am going.’
So, I wrote them a letter and I said you can give her place to somebody else who wants to do Biological Science because my daughter wants to do medicine. So, she went to one of the schools she had applied to and, today, she is a medical doctor. She is working and has gotten three children.
So, you are grandmother?
I am a grand mother three times.
When you go about like you do across Africa and you see the flamboyance of First Ladies, how do you feel?
This is an unfair question.
You have to answer this question because of the power some First Ladies wielded in those days…
You said I wielded power? But I didn’t have any! People were saying I had power; I could make and unmake ministers. Let me tell you, I never got one minister put somewhere. Not one minister!
Maybe in your time…
(Cuts in…) No, sometimes they say things that are not true, even about myself. So, I cannot pass judgment on another First Lady when I don’t really know whether it’s true or not, whether they really have that power or not. I never was able to have somebody arrested, yet, they said I had power. What power?
Maybe there was no need to get anybody arrested…
There was no need really. But I don’t think I would have done that. I would have reported to my husband that this thing happened.
And that would have meant serious trouble for the person…
But if I am going to get the person arrested, isn’t it bad trouble? But I am not the one who is the president.
The practice now generally is that if I want to be minister, for instance, and I don’t pass the First Lady’s ‘test’, I am not going anywhere.
Maybe the things that the president doesn’t know, I don’t know. I didn’t have the opportunities to bring in any minister.
What were you able to influence?
Like when I see prices going up in the market, because I go to the market frequently… When I see that the economy is really pinching, and his ministers are telling him things are okay, I would say ‘no, I went to the market yesterday.’ By so doing, I’m able to put the correct thing out. I can tell him the reality on the street, the judgment is his to make.
If you had the opportunity to be First Lady again, what are those things that you would love to do differently?
Give myself a little more comfort (laughs). I am kidding. What would I do differently? Maybe I’d use my own judgment more than to rely on the judgment of so many collaborators; and try to chart a route between their advices because on hindsight, the things that I sometimes came out with would have taken us to the goals faster than the areas that we were made to take.
Would you ascribe that to sycophancy or deliberate distortion?
That one you would see it. As for sycophancy, I think in any human institution, you would always have the sycophants, you would have those who tell you the truth and you would always have those who are too afraid to tell you anything. And, then, you would always have those who also oppose you.
Among those three categories of people, who do you like best?
It’s important to have people who would tell you the truth. If you don’t hear the truth, you would be working against the society and you would not know it, because you cannot be everywhere at the same time. It is important to hear from people who are truthful and honest about what they tell you. Whether it’s sweet to the ear or not, it’s better you know it. I appreciate it better.
Finally, how old are you, now, ma?
I am 64.
At 64, you still look great, ma. What is the secret?
About maintaining the vigour and vitality I see in you at 64?
I really don’t know, maybe I think harassment.
From the population and from politics, and all that (laughs). But seriously, I think it’s just the activities. I am engaged all the time. My mind is always engaged all the time. And the body, too, is engaged all the time. And I also have good metabolism, I think. Because it doesn’t matter what I eat, I don’t put on weight. But my mother is small. Maybe, it’s heredity.
At your very ripe age, when God decides to call you home, how would you love to be remembered?
I want to be remembered as somebody who spent a lot of her time trying to effect change in the lives of people, positive change; trying to empower people to stand for themselves and be able to know right and wrong, be able to know when to move and when to pull back.