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Ghana's Strongman Dons Civilian Mantle

Rawlings, a controversial populist, takes office following elections marred by fraud and boycotts. GHANA: AFRICAN MODEL?

THE election of Jerry Rawlings, the former flight lieutenant and military strongman of Ghana, as civilian president has many debating whether democracy was reinforced or merely subsumed by a powerful dictator.

Mr. Rawlings, who was elected Nov. 3 in a ballot marred by fraud and threats of violence, will be sworn in Jan. 7.

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As civilian president, he will have broad governing powers. The opposition parties, protesting alleged corruption in the presidential poll, boycotted the Dec. 29 legislative ballot, allowing Rawlings's National Democratic Congress to sweep parliament.

"He's a man of the people," says Kokoi Mota Teye, a housewife in the port town of Tema, near Accra. "He's brought a lot of changes," she says, sitting in the front yard of her small, two-story home of solid construction.

"My feeling is that he's a real populist - that [his style of politics is] not an act," says a Western diplomat.

Rawlings came to power in a military coup in 1979, then stepped down a few months later. An elected government held control until 1981, when he again seized power.

As military head of state, he is credited with building roads and schools, and bringing street lights to many villages. Most such developments have been funded by foreign donors and the World Bank.

Many Ghanaians and Western diplomats say Rawlings is honest, in contrast with the reputations for corruption many African heads of state have held.

At the University of Ghana here, Dean of Students Kwesi Yankah describes Rawlings as pragmatic, a man who has brought a new awareness to Ghanaians of their rights. He says Rawlings frequently sets aside protocol to join workers in the their tasks - the kind of informality that has won him widespread support.

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But Mr. Yankah also suggests that Rawlings's informality and "spontaneity" is simply a political technique. Ghanaian journalist Kofi Coomson agrees: "He's a brilliant actor. If you don't have the facts, he's mesmerizing."

Just as there is a debate over the real Jerry Rawlings, so is there debate over human rights and the extent to which Ghana has achieved democracy.

Deputy Foreign Secretary Mohamed ibn Chambas told the Monitor the recent presidential multiparty presidential election will make a difference in Ghana. "We'll have a parliament, a constitution. It will put Ghana in the mainstream."

"A lot of progress has been made," says a Western diplomat. "There's more democracy than there was two years ago."

Indeed, the government permitted opposition parties, and its monopoly on newspapers has ended.

For many Ghanaians, though, Rawlings' early years as dictator still weigh heavily. Following convictions in people's tribunals, many of Rawlings' critics were executed. Others, including several judges, simply disappeared. Mr. Chambas says, "We've had to come down pretty hard on some adventurers."

Albert Adu Boahen, the runner-up in the presidential race, calls Rawlings "a bloodthirsty, military dictator." Professor Boahen adds, however, that "since 1984, his human rights record is not that bad."

And Ghanaian attorney Kwasi Owusu-Yeboa worries about the judiciary. He says that judges accustomed to pleasing Rawlings with their rulings may find it hard to assert independence in their decisions.

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