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Coup-prone Ghana: once-rising African star fades

The large whitewashed castle on the Accra seafront, headquarters of Flight Lt. Jerry Rawlings and Ghana's ruling Provisional National Defense Council, seems increasingly like a besieged fortress.

The castle walls are protected by sandbags. Inside, Ghana's military rulers are haunted by fears of plots organized both inside and outside the country.

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Another attempt to overthrow the government, the fourth in the last nine months, was foiled Sunday. A group of dissident soldiers arrested in connection with a coup attempt last November broke out of prison and temporarily seized Accra radio station.

The rebels broadcast a statement calling the Rawlings regime a ''total flop'' and said that both he and the PNDC had been dismissed.

Loyal troops retook the radio station less than three hours later. And Rawlings announced that the situation was under ''firm control.''

Things have gone very wrong for the tiny, mineral-rich state in West Africa. When it gained independence from Britain in 1957 - the first West African state to achieve self-rule - Ghana's future seemed very bright. It had a superior educational system and a developing industrial sector. Its mineral resources included gold, diamonds, bauxite, and manganese. It was the world's largest cocoa producer and exporter.

Under its first president, Kwame Nkrumah, the Ghanaian ''black star'' of pan-Africanism and African socialism ascended for several years. But Nkrumah's spending got ahead of the country's ability to pay. He was ousted by a military coup in 1966 with the country heavily in debt.

Nkrumah's successors, both military and civilian, also proved incapable of balancing the country's finances. The economy steadily declined.

And Rawlings, too, has found it difficult to get the economy moving. His radical corrective measures are opposed by a powerful conservative alliance of lawyers, engineers, and other professional middle-class groups, and by churches and the market women or ''mammies'' whose black-market trading Rawlings curtailed.

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Rawlings described his financial plan as a ''bitter but necessary'' step to restore order. But students regarded the budget a ''sellout to the IMF (International Monetary Fund)'' and a ''betrayal of the revolution.'' After violent demonstrations, the country's three universities were closed.

But the Spartan budget is expected to shore up the country's international credit-worthiness. IMF standby and compensatory financing credits worth $432 million are expected. A $100 million commercial bank loan and aid from the World Bank and other donors are also expected. Rawlings has mounted two coups - both because he considered the government a failure in coping with the economy and corruption. The first was in 1979. He held power for only a few months, allowing the elected president, Dr. Hilla Limman to take power. But when Limman failed to halt mounting corruption and economic decline, Rawlings instigated another coup (in December 1981), this time keeping power.

The government has periodically accused foreign powers of trying to destabilize the regime, and has published articles on alleged US spying in Ghana. A senior government adviser has accused the CIA of trying to overthrow the government.

Faced with dwindling popular support and an almost catastrophic economic situation, analysts have been expecting the collapse of the Rawlings regime for many months.

The Ghanaian government recently forfeited the support of urban workers and students with the introduction of a budget that increased the cost of basic consumer items.

IMF loans should help Ghana feed its people. Its ability to feed itself was drastically curtailed this year after a prolonged drought, bush fires, and the sudden return of over 1 million workers expelled from Nigeria. The food shortage is estimated at 500,000 tons. Attempts to raise food output have been handicapped by shortages of seeds and fertilizers - even hoes and machetes. Lack of transport and fuel plus a dilapidated road network make food distribution difficult.

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