May 15, 1979: Flt. Lt. Jerry Rawlings arrested after failed military uprising


Flight Lieutenant Jerry John Rawlings staged his first military coup as a young revolutionary on 15 May 1979, five weeks before scheduled elections to return the country to civilian rule. When it 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). 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 armored car. When he became desperate, the driver of the Ferret realized that something was wrong and drove the armored 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.  - Rawlings court-martial 1979

Adapted from New African Magazine 2003