When Flight Lieutenant Rawlings seized power for the second time in Ghana on 31 December 1981 it was, like similar coups in Liberia and Ethiopia, under the pressure of intolerable economic crisis which had brought in its wake social and political crises of equally daunting proportions. Rawlings’s first seizure of power for four months in 1979 had had the same roots in despair and had been intended as a moral purge. This time Rawlings was more ambitious. He promised a national democratic revolution which would wrest control of the Ghanaian economy from imperialism and end the corruption and privilege which had ruled the country’s political life for so long. ‘This is not a coup. I ask for nothing less than a revolution, something that will transform the social and economic order of this country. . .we are asking for nothing more than proper democracy. . .to organize this country in such a way that nothing will be done from the Castle without the consent and the authority of the people—the farmers, the police, the soldiers, the workers—you are the guardians. . .’ said Rawlings in his first broadcast to the nation after 31 December.

The civilian administration of President Hilla Limann which was in office for two years between Rawlings’s periods in power was a textbook illustration of the bankruptcy of neo-colonial economic and political models in Africa, in which a small elite flourished, dependent on corruption. British and American companies had controlled Ghana since independence: The United Africa Company (a Unilever subsidiary) ran wholesale and retail trade; Valco, the aluminium company owned by Kaiser Aluminium and Reynolds Metal, had monopolized two thirds of Ghana’s power at a derisory rate for twenty years; and British banks like Standard and Barclays continued to dominate the nation’s finances, as they had in colonial times. While economic power remained in the hands of the multinationals, political power was shared out amongst their middle-class allies and clients in the army, the churches, the law, the university, business itself, and the traditional chiefs still so important in Ghana. A fraction of this Westernized elite, which provided a model many more aspired to, acquired fortunes abroad from payments made outside the country by Western aid donors or businesses. They bought property abroad and educated their children overseas, thus undermining the national and patriotic character of the next generation of the bourgeosie. Nkrumah’s education policy had provided wide educational opportunities locally which the bourgeoisie and petty bourgeoisie had profited from, but these institutions were in serious decline by Limann’s period.

Party politics in Ghana depended on the manipulation of access to the import licenses which allowed this group to milk the country’s foreign exchange reserves further. Limann’s two years had merely intensified these tendencies and seen the same elite groups in effective control as had flourished through the various phases of military rule in the 1970s. The extent of corruption by government officials and party politicians under Limann reached unprecedented heights, subsequently revealed by the new judiciary system in hearings of the National Investigation Committee and Citizens Vetting Committees. Some of those responsible have been sent to jail. Many others from the old power groups left the country in the early days of the revolution confident that Rawlings would soon fail.

Corruption had been endemic in Ghana since independence—an openly accepted part of the economic system. As in all neo-colonial African economies it is literally impossible for the westernized elite to maintain the life-style they inherited from the colonialists without corruption. Ghana is a classic example of how international capital when in control of the economy of a third world country encourages a fat-cat life-style based on kickbacks in order to maintain its access to markets and contracts via a network of personal clients in the bureaucracy and government. Smaller-scale business people, and, most important, professionals, who did not become part of that elite, began leaving by hundreds of thousands for Nigeria in the late 1970s. (In 1981 alone it is estimated that 15,000 teachers left Ghana for Nigeria.)

Meanwhile the urban and rural poor, although some of them also left for Nigeria, grew poorer at home. A declining industrial sector starved for raw materials and spare parts provided less and less of a livlihood in the towns. For the main export crop—cocoa which accounts for 60% of Ghana’s foreign exchange—the terms of trade moved sharply against producers, while the collapse of much of the country’s physical infrastructure meant declining production for lack of inputs. What was produced was often not collected, and smuggling began to account for as much as 30–40% of the crop.

Limann’s overthrow was a spontaneous expression of rage and despair. It was the same gut reaction by rank-and-file soldiers which had led in 1979, during the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council (afrc) period under Rawlings, to the execution of three former heads of state. In the December 1981 coup the soldiers were immediately supported by the urban working class whose already wretched standard of living was threatened with further decline by the devaluation of the cedi which Limann had accepted as a concession to the International Monetary Fund. The Rawlings’ coups differed from three previous military takeovers, and the series of attempts to overthrow him, in not being engineered by the officer corps. Ghana’s army officers since independence, and today, have been mostly conservative, Sandhurst-trained, interested in hierarchy and authority. The cia-backed coup against Nkrumah in 1966 by the army and the police was a natural move for men faced with the worrying likelihood of losing traditional foreign connections as Nkrumah moved towards serious non-alignment and Pan-African loyalties. The Acheampong populist coup of 1972 was merely a different faction of the same conservative army, as was the 1978 military musical chairs.

Under these various regimes the economic slide continued downwards; corruption continued upwards. The common soldier lived as poorly as peasants and urban workers, but close enough to those in power to know only too well how exploitative the top brass were. Neither the soldiers nor the urban working class had been prepared by any political organization for what Rawlings’s promise of a ‘national democratic revolution’ would mean. But they wholeheartedly embraced the new regime which they believed represented their interests against those whose exploitation of them they had watched impotently for so long.