“I am not an expert in economics, and I am not an expert in law. But I am an expert in working on an empty stomach while wondering when and where the next meal will come from. I know what it feels like to go to bed with a headache, for want of food in the stomach”.
Jerry Rawlings, 1979
Former President of Ghana Jerry Rawlings died on Thursday, November 12 at Korle Bu Teaching Hospital in Accra, where he was hospitalized a week ago for complications due to a contagion by CoVid-19. He was 73 years old. With his departure, “Junior Jesus”, his popular nickname formed from his first names -Jerry John-, the last great pan-Africanist leader, heir of Nkrumah, brother in arms of Thomas Sankara, comrade of Fidel Castro and Daniel Ortega, has disappeared. Of all the politicians I have met, he will remain the one who impressed me the most on a human level. My testimony, below.
JJ with Madiba
It was early 1993. Rawlings, after having established a multiparty system, had just been elected the first president of the Fourth Republic of Ghana. He welcomed me at the presidential palace in Accra, Osu Castle, the former Christiansborg Fort built by the Dano-Norwegians in the 17th century to store ivory, gold and slaves before shipping them to Europe and the Americas. The occupant of the palace had his hands full. In the bedroom, the three-metre wide presidential bed, in which he did not sleep - he preferred a narrow military camp bed - was covered with household appliances that only he was able to repair. The wooden lattice roof of the palace was fraying. He wondered how he was going to fix it. He had dragged me into the bathroom to show me the damage after we had watched the TV news, followed by the weather forecast, during which he turned white in anger. The weather anchorwoman had given her report in front of a map of Ghana that was an incomprehensible mess.
Looking at the map, I thought I understood the problem. The map was covered with a transparent plastic sheet on which the weather lady wrote the day's indications - rain, sun, temperature - using erasable markers. As she no longer had erasable markers, she had used non-erasable markers, covering the previous day's indications each day with whiteout and putting the new indications on top of the whiteout. The result after a few days was a picture worthy of the messiest abstract canvas. I explained my interpretation to JJ, who replied: “During the revolutionary period (after his second coup d'état in 1981), the workers created revolutionary councils, a sort of soviets, in all enterprises. The only enterprise where this was not the case was the national television”.
JJ with TomSank
Ghana in the early 1990s was, in the end, quite well reflected by the chaotic picture on the TV screen: a big mess, and only JJ had managed to stop the chaos in which the country had been sinking since 1966, when a group of soldiers had overthrown the Father of the Nation, Kwame Nkrumah. The Gold Coast, which had become independent Ghana, had three main sources of wealth: cocoa, gold and people. The military putschists had indulged in unrestrained predation after privatising the state-owned enterprises created by Nkrumah. Corruption was at an all-time high.
Rawlings had launched a radical operation to clean up the stables, based on popular mobilisation, but he quickly had to bow to the obvious: Ghanaians did not want socialism. He had therefore quickly set off for Canossa, accepting the World Bank's Structural Adjustment Programme, which among other things implied continuing privatisations. An example: the Black Star Line, the shipping company created by Nkrumah. (This company took the name of the aborted project of Marcus Garvey, the founder of the Rastafarian movement, who, after the First World War, had launched a movement for African-Americans to return to Africa.) The company owned twenty freighters, which were sold as part of the SAP; when the last freighter made its journey from Takoradi to London to be delivered to its new owners, part of the former Ghanaian crew hid in the hold, becoming stowaways.
It was precisely a tragedy of stowaways that brought me to Accra. On 9 November 1992, Kingsley Ofosu, a 22-year-old boy from Takoradi, jumped off the cargo ship MC Ruby on a dock in Le Havre, France, and told his story to the policemen who had picked him up. He was the only survivor of a group of 9 stowaways, 8 Ghanaians and one Cameroonian. The stowaways had been massacred off the Portuguese coast by the post-Soviet crew of the flag of convenience cargo ship that had filled up with cocoa beans at Takoradi port, where Kingsley and his comrades were dockers.
In Paris, as soon as we heard the report on the Sunday evening news, we set to work: We launched an appeal, "Men overboard! "demanding that the French justice system seize the freighter and charge not only the crew, but also the shipowner. The owner was not just anyone: His name was Vlassov, he was settled in Monte Carlo and descended from a family that had fled Russia after the 1917 Revolution. He had taken over part of the ex-Soviet fleet, buying ships at low prices and hiring crews through a slave agency in Odessa. Ex-Soviet sailors were paid $200 a month, while a Norwegian, German or US sailor was paid $4,000, a Filipino sailor $1,500 and a Ghanaian $900.
The starving crew of the MC Ruby - Ukrainians, Georgians, Abkhazians -, discovering the young Ghanaians at the bottom of the hold, had stolen all the money they had - not much, but for them a fortune; they had recovered the captain's rifle and had executed 8 of the 9 stowaways, throwing them overboard. Kingsley had earlier decided to join the adventure with his comrades after winning the lottery the equivalent of £300; he managed to escape the killers and hide under the sacks of cocoa beans.
For us, who were active in solidarity with migrants, this affair was to be a golden opportunity to publicly expose the tragic consequences of the liberalisation of the world, from the former USSR to Africa. And the presence of a survivor would give a face and a name to the victims. There had been some previous trials in Canada and Greece of seamen accused of throwing stowaways overboard, but the victims had remained anonymous and therefore unrepresented by civil parties. This time, the families of the victims would be able to take legal action. It still had to be organised.
To do this, it was necessary to go to Ghana. No sooner said than done. Put in touch with JJ Rawlings by a friend, I found myself in Accra, at Osu Castle. The colossus that welcomes me was a very handsome man, warm and joking. Like me, he smoked. My tobacco being exhausted, he offered me a carton of Benson & Hedges, whose prohibitive price in structurally adjusted Ghana reserved consumption for the happy few. I told him the whole story, unfolding the appeal we had launched in Paris, followed by 300 signatures, collected at a meeting at the Mutualité Palace on November 10. While I was talking, JJ was making phone calls. In particular, he talked with the Minister of Popular Mobilisation (authentic!). “Chief”, he told me (I'd never been called “chief” before), “the day after tomorrow, you can meet the families of the victims in Takoradi”. And we went from the living room to the dining room, where we were served tilapia, the most consumed fish in the world, the same fish that Christ would have multiplied. While the delicate little white boy I was carefully separated the fish's bones, my lieutenant put his in the mouth and chewed it with delight, explaining to me: “The rest of us chew everything, even chicken bones”.
Two days later, as promised, I met the families of the victims in Takoradi, including Kingsley's pregnant young wife, who handed over their statements to become civil parties in the case. The only absent family would be that of the first stowaway, Joseph, a Cameroonian embarked in Douala, whom we were unable to identify, despite our research on the spot. In the wake of the expedition to Takoradi, I spoke to a meeting with 200 dockers, organised by the Union of sailors and dockers. All those present were motivated and aware of the stakes. At the time, there was at least one stowaway on practically every cargo ship going from West Africa to Europe. The general secretary of the union told me that he spended the year criss-crossing the ports of the world trying to place Ghanaian seamen. They had arrived at wage levels similar to those of the Filipinos, but the collapse of the USSR has crashed the market, with shipowners preferring to hire four ex-Soviet seamen for the price of one Filipino or Ghanaian. As a result, half of the 3,500 members of the Ghanaian union were unemployed. During our meeting, JJ had told me that during a visit to Cape Verde, President Aristides Pereira had told him : “Listen, JJ, since you're leaving in your plane, couldn't you pick up 4 Ghanaian stowaways who are stranded in our country, disembarked from a cargo ship?” Which Rawlings did, of course.
I had made two proposals to the Ghanaians: to Rawlings, I had talked about the creation by President Aristide in Haiti of the “Tenth Department”, a ministry in charge of emigrants, an example followed by post-revolutionary Mali in 1991. With one to two million emigrants for a population of 15 million Ghanaians, such a ministry would have had a lot to do. People in Ghana still remembered Nigeria's expulsion of hundreds of thousands of Ghanaians in 1983, which only served to deepen the country's economic debacle. To the union secretary, I had suggested that we should consider setting up a cooperative to launch a ferryboat line that would operate coastal shipping between Ghana and the major West African ports, carrying passengers, vehicles and goods.
My two proposals had intrigued my interlocutors, but they never materialised. Just one example to give an idea of the situation at the time: The Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Accra was housed in a ten-storey building with lifts out of order and a single telephone line.
The Rawlings Family
Everybody in Ghana had a story of stowaways to tell me. I met one survivor. He and his odyssey companion had been put into the sea by the commander of a Japanese cargo ship off the coast of Sierra Leone. The freighter was carrying tree trunks, and the captain had shown he was big-hearted, releasing the two boys into the ocean with a tree trunk, allowing them to return to the coast safely. All in all, the two boys had embarked with a bottle of water. They had no idea where the ship was going, how long the trip would be and where they could disembark in Europe. To my question, “But what did you had in mind when you boarded the ship?”, the boy had this wonderful answer: “We said, 'we'll manage it'”. A civil servant passing by during our conversation, hearing this answer, exclaimed: "Ah, how wonderful our youth is!»
The of MC Ruby trial took place at the Court of Assizes of Rouen in December 1995, in the middle of a strike against the reform of the social security system planned by Alain Juppé. The shipowner had not been charged. The International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF), whose headquarters I had visited in London on my return from Ghana, had not wanted to bring a civil action, although it would have had good reason to do so, for two reasons: the victims were dockworkers and the accused were seafarers, whose act tarnished the image of seamen. The Court rejected the Ghanaian State's application for civil action. The Ghanaian State paid the French lawyer for those bringing the civil suit, represented at the trial by a father and an uncle of victims. The defendants were given maximum sentences. 25 years later, Kingsley Ofosu is still waiting for payment of the damages awarded by the Court and continues his acrobatics to survive his still precarious work situation.
Ghanaians are born acrobats. The one who was the first of them for 20 years was able to outlive his brother Thomas Sankara for 33 years for this reason: he was an ace in aerial acrobatics. May he continue his loops in the sky he believed in. This fervent Catholic told me about the preparation of his first coup d'état on 15 May 1979: “Nana, my wife, was pregnant with our second daughter, Yaa Asantewaa. As she has sickle cell disease, any delivery was risky. So I prayed to the Lord: ‘Lord, if the delivery goes well, I will take action’. My wishes were granted”.