Lest We Forget – 1983 - Thirty Years Ago (08-05-13)
The year 1983 perhaps was the harshest year in Ghana’s modern history. In some countries there would be retrospectives, symposia and other kinds of public reflections on this most devastating year in our collective memory. When I say “collective”, I am referring to those who have not forgotten because they were there and those who have chosen not to forget because they remember. There cannot be many of the latter because general amnesia is another Ghanaian strategy for enduring the pain of the recent past, especially those for whom remembering the past is inconvenient.
The year 1983 did not start well. One of the harshest droughts was in progress. There had been little meaningful rain since 1981; that is it has either rained little or the rain had come at the wrong place and time. The drought could not have come at the worst possible moment.
To understand the full import of what happened, a bit of history is in order. The most unsettled decade for this country has to be the 1970s, the years during which for good or ill, the chickens of the Nkrumah overthrow in 1966 came home to roost. Maybe the Progress Party government of Dr. Kofi Abrefa Busia could have succeeded in its policy of rural development but we have no way of knowing because it lasted only 27 months. In the meantime, it managed to sell off state assets in a manner that foreshadowed other economic controversies, some would say disasters, in the following decades.
In January 1972 Colonel Kutu Acheampong and his close friends staged a military coup and took over the country. They did not appear to have any development strategy but they managed to infuse a sense of purpose and urgency around their slogan of “Operation Feed Yourself”, and a mild form of pan-Africanism and Nkrumaist orientation, later to be described as “domestication” by the late Dan Lartey who was one of their civilian advisers. In 1975, Acheampong’s closest comrades in their National Redemption Council government were demoted to a second-tier of government in palace coup staged by the most senior officers in all branches of the military. They formed the Supreme Military Council, still with Acheampong as head but without the esprit de corps he enjoyed with his demoted friends, who quietly left the centre stage of government. The SMC had no policies except staying on in power through some of the most disastrous economic crises we have ever known. This article is not the place to go into the details of those policies and their consequences, except to remind us that almost all sections of society rose up against the government.
Trapped and with nowhere to go, the SMC tried one last trick; this was “Union Government”, (UNIGOV) an ill-defined coalition of civilians, soldiers and police officers. A botched referendum was the last straw and yet another palace coup overthrew Acheampong in 1978 and replaced him with General F.W.K. Akuffo, who was generally acknowledged to be a first-class military officer but untested as a political leader. He is the man who used military discipline and precision to lead Ghana’s switch from driving on the left to the right in 1974 without a single accident on the day of the change. However, his attempts, first to continue the UNIGOV scam under a different guise, and then to absolve the military of blame did not sit well with soldiers and civilians as well.
On June 4 1979, a fortnight before the first general elections in a decade, a group of young soldiers overthrew the Akuffo government as they successfully released a certain Air force officer from custody at the Special branch headquarters where he had been held since leading a failed insurrection on 15 May that year. That young air force officer, of course, was Flt Lt. Jerry John Rawlings who needs no introduction in this discussion. On the last day of the year 1981, Rawlings who had been retired from the military led another insurrection to overthrow the Limann-led Peoples National Party government which had been in office since the Rawlings insurrectionist gave up power three months after their coup.
Flt Lt Rawlings announced at the beginning of his insurrectionary regime that it was a “revolution”, and the revolution’s first year saw the country economically destabilised partly by the revolutionaries own activities and by international pressure. Squeezed by international commercial lenders, Ghana’s credit dwindled and disappeared. Our credit was not a lot to start with; Nigeria had to bring in truckloads of gifts including toilet rolls to soften our difficulties during the Christmas! Understandably, life got very difficult for most citizens of this country. In the meantime, as lack of raw materials shut local production of everything we could make ourselves there was no money to import anything and yet warehouses had been emptied by revolutionaries pursuing social justice.
The revolutionaries had a point even if it was excessively expressed. Ghana could not continue on the path, whichever it was, that had driven us that far. The nation needed restructuring and whether a political revolution was the ideal way to perform this all-out change in those circumstances, still needs to be debated in this country. There is a Japanese proverb that says “although the sign reads do not pluck these flowers from this garden, it is useless against the wind which does not read”. The drought did not read the revolutionary script and deepened as 1982 turned into 1983.
There had been little notice in the Ghanaian media that Nigeria had given a very strict and final ultimatum in 1982 to foreigners there to “regulate” their stay or be kicked out early in 1983. It is difficult not to conclude that Nigeria’s actions were in some way retaliation for Ghana’s own eviction of foreigners, mostly Nigerians some fourteen years earlier. More than one million Ghanaians had to pack bag and baggage and head home. They came into an empty country. Food was scarce and disappearing fast and although our “returnees” came with some nicely painted bags known as “Ghana Must Go” and many stories of atrocities, none brought a morsel of food to add to the national stock.
It was in that period that the term “Rawlings Chain” was coined to describe the deep gorges formed around people’s neck’s when their emaciated skin exposed protruding collar bones. It is the look of refugees on television, but the famine of 1983 was not a television play; it was real. Most Ghanaians of a certain age will have their own stories but the most enduring scene from that year is the long queue formed not of human beings but by discarded objects and stones to stand in the place for people because those queues would not move for hours on end. The queues were mainly for uncooked kenkey; yes, we stood in line for hours just to buy the raw fermented corn dough to take home to cook. It was a privilege.
Nineteen-eighty-three also saw interesting changes in social attitudes in the country. In hospitality, the norm in Ghana pre-1983 was to offer food to any guest who entered your house. Indeed, the host was often offended if the guest refused to eat. In 1983 and after this turned 180 degrees as people hid food under chairs and even beds and waited until the departure of any friends and family who had chosen to visit at mealtimes. The indiscipline that has become a byword in Ghana dates back to that period when family structures collapsed; it is obvious that a father who could not put food on the table would command no respect.
We have to remember 1983 - those of us who can; those who cannot remember because they were not there must be told the stories, and those who have chosen to forget must be reminded because unless we learn from history it is bound to repeat itself. There were political, economic and environmental mistakes that had been made many years before that disastrous year. We did not absorb all the lessons and we have still not learnt from them.
In 1983, we had only one TV news channel and before the evening news broadcast the following ditty would be rendered…
Ghana People make you stand up
Make you fight
For your rights
We no go sit down make them cheat we everyday…
I don’t know what to make of that today.
Nineteen-eighty-three, 30 years ago – lest we forget!