Why Was Jerry Rawlings Different?

Posted on | september 5, 2012 | No Comments

Jerry Rawlings development leadershipAfrica has had a number of good leaders and growth stories in the years since independence. But it is had very few countries whose success spanned multiple leaders and which included a substantial increase in the institutionalization of politics, such that the country came to not depend on any particular leader.

Jerry Rawlings and Ghana are different.

Ghana, once a West African basket case, is one of the continent’s most successful states. Its economy has grown by a robust 5 percent per year over the past twenty-five years. Poverty has dropped in half. Many more people go to school. Investment and exports have soared.  And the country has become a vibrant democracy, with competitive elections, a vocal press, and stronger governance. The country is far from perfect, but it is one of Africa’s strongest countries politically, economically, and institutionally.

What changed?

Jerry Rawlings. Although he came to power in a coup–one of a long line of leaders who had done so (Ghana had eight heads of state between 1966 and 1981)–Rawlings transformed the country during his nineteen years in power, reforming almost every aspect of how the state operates.

Although best known for his economic reforms, the steps Rawlings took to make the state more socially inclusive and more institutionally robust may be his most important legacies. Embracing an ideology focused on improving the quality of life for all Ghanaians, Rawlings reversed a history of widening ethnic tensions and narrow self-interested government. He actively promoted national integration; decentralized government; and extended public services to the less developed north. And by introducing a democratic constitution and fair elections, and then stepping down after winning the mandated limit of two presidential terms—at the age of only fifty-four—he established institutions that enabled his achievements to outlast him.

Since 1992, Ghana has had five successful multiparty elections, two changes in government through the ballot box, and one transition of power to a vice president upon the death of the head of state. The country’s civil society, media, and NGOs are all flourishing. Although imperfect in some important ways (election campaigns are too confrontational, and ethnicity still matter too much to politics), Ghana has arguably the most institutionalized political system of any country in sub-Saharan Africa outside South Africa (whose history is unique).

The contrast with other leaders who built successful growth models could not be greater. Côte d’Ivoire’s charismatic first president, Félix Houphouët-Boigny, built the continent’s most successful economy in the 1960s and 1970s, but left the country unprepared for his demise. He stayed in office to the very end; his country has been mired in conflict between its southern and northern halves ever since. Dr. Hastings Kamuzu Banda led Malawi to almost two decades of rapid growth, but age paralyzed his administration in his later years, and no successor was strong enough to maintain the momentum he started; the country struggled in the years afterwards.

In more recent years, Rwanda, Ethiopia, and Uganda have all enjoyed extended periods of economic growth, but depended too much on the vision of one man. Uganda long ago lost momentum economically, and is becoming more authoritarian and less dynamic by the year. Ethiopia will now be tested by the death of its brilliant but autocratic leader of two decades, Meles Zenawi, who has left the scene without a clear and transparent system of succession in place. Rwanda’s success remains dependent on its own brilliant but autocratic leader, Paul Kagame.

How much do the leaders of these countries endanger their achievements in the economic sphere by their failures to institutionalize the politics of their respective countries? What are the chances that their successors will destabilize their countries fighting over the spoils that greater prosperity has brought?

Institutionalizing politics does not necessarily mean introducing Western-style democracy, but it does mean establishing clear, robust rules on how major decisions are determined and how succession takes place. Any regime that depends on one person is unlikely to survive much past that person’s passing.

This is a problem across Africa (and many developing countries elsewhere). Despite their competitive elections, no one can say that Nigeria, the DRC, or Uganda has a robust democracy. Autocratic regimes such as Sudan, Zimbabwe, and Angola rarely have clear rules on succession or strong enough political parties to outlast their founders (as China and Vietnam do).

Why was Jerry Rawlings different? What spurs leaders to build institutions that are bigger than they are (and thus can overrule and outlast them)? What does it take for a leader to put their country before themselves such that they have a better recognition of when is the appropriate time to step down? What can be done to encourage other leaders across Africa to behave more like Jerry Rawlings?

These are extremely important questions for the future of countries across the developing world, yet they are rarely if ever asked.

What do you think? Why was Jerry Rawlings different?  I will provide some possible answers in a later post.

AUTHOR: Seth Kaplan
URL: http://www.fragilestates.org
E-MAIL: seth [at] sethkaplan.org


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