“The evil that men do lives after them;
The good is oft interred with their bones.”
This is what William Shakespeare wrote in his portrayal of the life, death and aftermath of Julius Caesar.
This quote came to mind as I pondered the recent, unexpected death of Ghana’s President Jerry John Rawlings on November 12th 2020. Since his death, there has been an outpouring of praise, love and support from all over the world. My Facebook feed has been filled with people’s very heartfelt and warm memories of this larger-than-life figure whom so many admired. As such, what I am about to write may be disconcerting to many who are in mourning for our former president. Please know that I mean no disrespect to his family or his many supporters across the globe – in fact, I send my condolences to them. However, it is important as we remember him that we maintain a balanced view of his life. We all carry good and bad in us and in order for society to evolve, it is just as important to acknowledge the bad as it is to acknowledge the good. This brings me back to the quote I opened with. From what I can tell, Rawlings’ death has turned the revered writer’s, and indeed philosopher’s, understanding of mankind on its head. People seem to have forgotten the negative and at times hurtful aspects of Rawlings’ rise to power and his governance.
I write this for the many families who either lost loved ones, were displaced or were simply terrorized by Rawlings and his fellow leaders. It seems there is no place for their story now as we heap praise on this man. Yet, their stories are significant and should be given voice or at the very least, not completely forgotten. At this very moment, there are people who still carry trauma from this period in Ghana’s history. While my parents say they never feared for their lives, the situation at the time was bad enough for them to feel it necessary to move their family to the other side of the globe, away from all they knew and held dear. We were not alone – there were many whose circumstances were undeniably more grave than ours. Rawlings may have done a great deal for Ghana’s development and maturity as a democracy – I am no historian so I will leave it to historians to assess his legacy. All that I ask, is that as Ghanaians and Africans mourn the loss of this man who many deem a hero, let us not forget the darker side of his rise and rule.
If what we see in US politics today has taught us anything, it is that democracy is fragile and requires constant vigilance. Erasing the missteps of our leaders denies future generations the opportunity to learn of these missteps so that horrors do not get repeated. Before calling a person a hero, let’s take a measured view and full account of them. This will prevent our ignorance or dismissal of unsavory parts of their characters from allowing atrocities or abuses of our fellow men to continue while we focus purely on that individual’s positive contributions. JJ Rawlings had a huge impact on many lives – that is a fact. Not all of that impact was good – that is also a fact. As we remember the good, let us also remember the bad and not completely bury that with his bones. For those people who feel there is no place to express the pain that you carry in your heart due to his actions, please know that there are many who will always see you.
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Written by Melissa Klufio Peeler