Exactly 41 years ago on May 15 1979, a youthful and exuberant J.J Rawlings Staged his first coup as a young and energetic revolutionary, almost five weeks before scheduled elections to return Ghana to civilian rule.
On the morning of the day of the coup d’état, there was an exchange of fire between the coup plotters and officers of the Supreme Military Council. It took the effort and bravery of one senior military officer, Major General Odartey Willington to get to the Ghana Broadcasting Corporation (GBC) to announce that the attempted coup by junior officers of the force had been foiled.
When the coup failed, he was imprisoned, publicly court-martialed and sentenced to death. He was part of an underground movement of military officers who planned unify Africa through a series of coups. They were known as the Free Africa Movement (FAM). Rawlings had attempted to overthrow the military government led by General FWK Akuffo.
After reading a statement in court explaining the social injustices prompting the attempted coup, Rawlings gained the sympathy of the civilian population.
According to his colleague Lt. Boakye Djan, on 10th May 1979, Rawlings had informed him about the coup. On the eve of the coup, he was sleeping in his room at 5th Battalion Barracks in Accra when Rawlings came in and said: “let’s go for a drink”. After a few drinks, according to the interview, Rawlings engaged him in a conversation that revealed his (Rawlings) intention to him. The rest of the story is recounted in Djan’s own words.
“Early on Monday morning, May 15, 1979, I was told that Rawlings had led his men and drove straight to the Fifth Battalion to commit me to his cause; in other words, to force my hand. But when he was told that I wasn’t there, he threw his G3 rifle to the ground in frustration. It was a new rifle bought from Spain, a very sensitive rifle. When it hit the ground, it started firing, and people started running helter-skelter”.
“Rawlings had earlier seized a small Recce Ferret, an armoured car. When he became desperate, the driver of the Ferret realized that something was wrong and drove the armoured car straight into a gutter. Apparently Rawlings had not briefed the driver about the operation. He seized the Ferret at gunpoint and did not bother to brief the driver on what was going on. That was what he wanted to do to me. I was the best man at his wedding, and if he had met me at my post in the morning, I would have been compromised. After the Rawlings fiasco, troops from the Fifth Battalion were mobilized to go after him. He had gone to pitch camp at the Air Force Station. He was sitting down there like a lame duck. He was now cannon fodder as I had forecast. I warned him but he wouldn’t listen”.
“At the time, the Delta-Company of which I (Djan) was the commander, was the point company at the Fifth Battalion. So if I had been present when Rawlings’ coup fizzled out, my company would have been the one mobilized to arrest him. And you could well imagine the dilemma this would have caused me.”
Fortunately for Djan, he was not there. So a detachment of troops from the Fifth Battalion and the Recce Regiment led by Major Seidu Mahama was mobilized to arrest Rawlings. It was said that Major Mahama seized Rawlings’ pistol, hit him on the head with it, and told him: “You don’t stage coups with a pistol“.