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National icon keeps campaign guessing ahead of Ghana polls

19 september 2012, 17:04
0
The military shooting range along a windswept beach appears desolate and unassuming, but it is home to a controversial piece of history for Ghana and its former president Jerry Rawlings, AFP reports.

It was here in 1979 that eight ex-military regime members, including former heads of state, were executed by firing squad after a coup that brought Rawlings to power and led to his domination of politics for years to come.

The bearded and tough-talking Rawlings is now 65 and long out of office, but it seems the former military ruler turned elected leader is not finished stirring controversy, particularly as another presidential election nears.

Rawlings' support in December's presidential polls will be important for incumbent John Dramani Mahama, the candidate for the National Democratic Congress party he founded, against opposition flagbearer Nana Akufo-Addo.

He has however given mixed signals about where he stands.

Much will be at stake in the vote in the country of more than 20 million, seen in recent years as a rare example of stable democracy in West Africa.

Already a major producer of gold and cocoa, Ghana began significant oil production for the first time in 2010.

It is expected to be a close vote, and the NDC will face an even more difficult path to maintaining power if Rawlings, still adored by many, is not fully behind it, some analysts say.

His comments in recent months have raised eyebrows, particularly following the July death of president John Atta Mills, his former ally turned rival. There are also rumours that he and his wife are backing a newly created party.

"He's playing games with all of us, isn't he?" said Kojo Asante of the Centre for Democratic Development think tank in Accra.

"It's classic Rawlings -- sort of says a lot of things and (we) still can't make any real sense of what exactly he means."

A spokesman for Rawlings declined to comment and refused requests to interview the ex-president.

It is perhaps indicative of Rawlings' legendary charisma that he has maintained his reputation as a brusque truth-teller despite his seemingly unclear position in the campaign.

That aspect of his personality was illustrated shortly after Mills' death.

Rawlings bluntly said the late president had been suffering from cancer and could only work a few hours per day, while seeming to suggest that Mills should have resigned.

The comments came without an official cause of death having been announced and with the country in mourning for Mills, who was respected for his integrity and had been planning to run for re-election.

Rawlings' appearance at the ruling party's congress in August to nominate Mahama generated an electric response from the faithful at the stadium, but his speech offered backhanded support of the president.

"Electoral victory will depend on a number of things, such as how quickly you can restore integrity to the presidency," Rawlings growled.

While few doubt he can have an impact on the campaign, there is debate over how much. A younger generation that has now begun to play a major role in Ghanaian politics is not as familiar with his larger-than-life past.

"They don't know Rawlings," said pollster Ben Ephson. "Without Rawlings, the NDC can still win, but they have to work harder."

Rawlings' life has been intertwined with much of the recent history of Ghana. He was a 31-year-old air force officer when he was arrested for a 1979 coup bid against a military regime widely seen as having badly mismanaged the country.

Rawlings was later freed by supporters and a coup led to him taking charge of a new military government, under which the former regime members were taken to the shooting range on the beach.

Rawlings' and his fellow soldiers handed over to a civilian government later in 1979, but it was short-lived. The flight lieutenant would lead another coup in 1981 in response to a fresh descent into corruption.

Appreciated for his handling of the economy, he became elected president after 1992 polls and won another mandate in 1996 before handing over power at the end of his two-term limit to the opposition, which had won 2000 elections.

Mills, who won the 2008 elections, had served as Rawlings' vice president, but they later fell out. Various theories have been put forward as to why, including Mills' reluctance to forcefully pursue corruption charges against members of the ex-administration.

Asante, the Centre for Democratic Development analyst, says Rawlings seems to be flirting with a risky strategy with the election ahead. If the party is seen as having won without him, it could relegate him to irrelevance, he said.

He seems to be searching for a way of "keeping himself in play," said Asante. "So his next move will be interesting."

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