Funerals, politics and social distancing: the Rawlings pickle

It would be in the spirit of Jerry Rawlings for him to have asked for a simple ceremony – but all the signs are that his burial will be a complex affair

Sane Eteshi – Matters Arising


My sincere sympathies to the family of Jerry John Rawlings, my housemate and form-mate who served as Ghana’s head of state, ushering in the Fourth Republic after he cut short the Third. To his darling wife and faithful consort, Nana Konadu Agyeman-Rawlings, I offer heartfelt condolences on the passing of one of the most remarkable members of our year group at Achimota, bold and brave, who took up arms so that the mess into which the soldiers before him had put our country would be cleaned up and the image of the military restored.

We should console his children for their loss and for all the time that their father spent away from them while they were very young, serving his country, the patriotic thing for any true son of the soil to do. Their father leaves a legacy of national service that is unparalleled in the history of Ghana as our longest-serving head of state.

Children of Jerry Rawlings

Choose your pound of flesh

President Akufo-Addo was correct to declare seven days of national mourning after Rawlings’s death on 12 November, and he and the former president John Mahama were right to put their campaigns on hold during the period, inconvenient as this was, so close to the 7 December election.

Funerals create an opportunity for people to come together. Initially, it is the extended family that must meet to make arrangements, but in the case of a national hero of the “People’s Revolution”, it is proper that the widespread public grief should be recognised.

In Ghana, however, funerals are the stuff that sustains politics. They are a time when party members travel long distances to mourn with colleagues whose relatives have departed this Earth, or to show to the rest of the world how valued their departed fellow member was to the political family.

They are also a time when leaders inquire about the welfare of party members not seen in a long while and consider which ones need to be visited. Indeed, funerals played a useful role during Ghana’s periods of military dictatorship, when political activity was banned. They served as meeting grounds for recruiting members and converting fellow travellers into nascent political formations.

By all indications, the funeral of Jerry Rawlings is going to be very political. He will be buried in style, as President Akufo-Addo announced, with a funeral befitting a head of state. And yet, with an election still in dispute and related court cases in the offing, there will be a fight of sorts over Rawlings’s legacy and body. Both of the leading parties will do their utmost to claim ownership of whichever bit of the Rawlings legacy they feel best suits their party and their politics.

Down with lavish spending

The governing New Patriotic Party fought against him for many years and even tried to put his wife in jail – but the NPP’s chief claim to the Rawlings legacy is that he broke from the National Democratic Congress and became closer to Nana Akufo-Addo than he was to John Mahama.

It has also been said that Rawlings’s widow, who stood in the 7 December election as the flagbearer for her own party, the NDP, prevented Rawlings from campaigning for Mahama. However, this does not explain why one of her own daughters, Zanetor, was at the forefront of the Mahama campaign. Now Mahama hails Rawlings as the founder and father of the NDC and says the party he never left should be given the space to mourn its leader and claim his remains and his legacy.

But I recall that in 1979, one of the things that the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council preached against was lavish funerals. The practice of publishing photographs of the dead person in a funeral announcement was prohibited in the state-owned Daily Graphic and the number of days of mourning was cut back to the bare minimum because the junta cautioned against spending big money on funerals. I suppose that, like everything else, we have reverted to those days and become even more lavish, with one-week and forty-day ceremonies, the adetsani, abusua toɔ and awujɔ celebrations in full force.

We know that when President John Evans Atta Mills died, it was such a shock to President Rawlings that he is said to have made a statement, which he eventually retracted, about how regrettable the passing of Mills was. So I hope that President Rawlings asked for a simple funeral. And I hope that these wishes are followed, so that, now the stand-off over a date is past, there is no long argument over where to bury him, as in the case of Atta Mills.

Rawlings at the funeral of John Evans Atta Mills
Jerry Rawlings at the funeral of John Evans Atta Mills. Courtesy: Office of Flight Lieutenant Jerry John Rawlings


The fact of the matter, however, is that we are living in the time of COVID-19 and the practice of social distancing must not be interpreted as merely maintaining physical distance from each other. COVID-19 loves crowds, which is why in COVID-19-ravaged England we were put into lockdown again over Christmas and older people with underlying health issues have been asked to self-isolate.

Social distancing is about limiting your contact with people who are not members of your household or who do not live in your supportive bubble. It is about staying at home, avoiding meeting people from another bubble, no meetings of more than six people outdoors in open spaces, no gatherings in restaurants or pubs, no big parties, weddings or outdoorings, and certainly no normal funerals – the funeral directors dictate that no more than 20 people be present.

Antisocial behaviour

Having seen on television the numbers that visited the Rawlings household to mourn with the former president when his mother passed on, as well as all the “going and coming” during the period since his death, and knowing that the 2020 election campaign is not yet over and that political congregation will become a feature of this funeral, I am starting to wonder whether all the COVID-19 protocols of “wash your hands, wear your mask and keep two metres apart” that the government has set will actually be observed.

There is a real danger that the Rawlings funeral may turn into a political circus. Given the NDC’s intention to challenge the declared results of this month’s election, it would appear that putting the burial off until after 7 December will have done little to give room for political ardour to be spent, or to allow the people to mourn their hero with a sincere outpouring of grief.

And yet, this might be just what the nation needs for unity after a keenly contested election.

As we say in Ga, “Mɔni fuɔ kpitiyelɔ lɛ, ekotaa esaa” – to wit, he who wins the election will get to bury you and inherit your legacy.

Rest in perfect peace in the Lord, Chairman Rawlings. Yaa wɔ odzogbaŋŋ.

December 2020, England

Ade Sawyerr

Owula Ade Sawyerr is a writer, social activist and founder partner of Equinox Consulting, which works to develop inner-city and minority communities in Britain. He comments on economic, political and social affairs and is a past chairman of the UK branch of the Convention People’s Party.

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