Jerry John Rawlings:Truth, Healing and Emotional Justice

Esther Armah

Ghana’s longest serving head of state is now laid to rest. The Ancestors have called him home. Our nation has come alive to stories, rememberings, speeches and a spirit of mourning in the week of activities ending with his state funeral on Wednesday at Black Star Square.

As the ritual of burial comes to a close, what remains is not that Jerry Rawlings is remembered – he always will be and should be – but how he is remembered, how he is memorialized.

Obituaries have been written. Eulogies have been given. I do not offer another of either. I do invite us to engage in a reckoning for the purpose of healing.

Former President Rawlings was beloved in the Diaspora due to his savage public unapologetic critique of capitalism and colonialism, his advocacy for the regular, working people, and for his staunch Pan Africanism. He was beloved in Ghana for his fierce advocacy for working people. During his state funeral it is those accolades that will be highlighted, articulated to nods, applause and the global tradition of not speaking ill of the dead. But we must speak truth of the trauma caused by violence from parts of their leadership, and we need healing from those parts.

Ghana, we must pursue Emotional Justice.

It is a visionary framework for healing that is useful in this space where you cannot legislate memory and erase trauma and its aftermath on party, progress and a people. In an earlier column, I wrote that Rawlings was a man equally lionized and bastardized. What remains is legacy.

Healing is required due to the legacy of the democracy he ushered in chequered by a violence that marred and made freedom for some and scarred families and futures – in equal measure.

Narratives matter.

I and my family, like many families, was scarred by the violence of the coups that marked Rawlings ascent into presidential power. The news of his death triggered outpourings about the trauma from the loved ones of those Rawlings and his administration killed or incarcerated. They reminded us that a portion of our history on democracy remains untouched, but requires excavating as part of a healing process that centres accountability.

A legacy within the framework of Emotional Justice requires an intimate reckoning with the toll and trauma from the darkest parts of Rawling’sleadership. In 2019, Ghana came alive for the Year of Return when thousands and thousands of African Americans returned to Ghana. President Akufo-Addohonored the trauma of those lost due to the transatlantic slave trade. The point being the national honoring of loss sends an important message to an entire people about the significance of such a loss;that it is remembered, recognized as part of a healing journey.

That same recognition, naming, honoring is required for the traumas caused to the families whose fathers were executed by Rawlings, and who have lived with a legacy of untreated and unacknowledged trauma from Ghana as a nation.

This is challenging work. It is politically polarizing, and will draw myriad accusations of playing fast and loose with the memory of a president beloved and beleaguered by millions.

I was deeply moved listening to Hon. ZanetorRawlings eulogy for her father on behalf of hischildren. She offered us insight to a father, one who deeply loved his children, was fun and loving, offered them multiple lessons that shaped their world view and relationship to a nation, as well as themselves. I think of the men killed by Rawlings, and what their children might have revealed about the kind of men they were, the lessons they taught daughters and sons, the insights, the memories.

This is not to compare loss with loss. All loss is unique and incomparable; it is to recognize that a legacy of untreated trauma exists, has been silenced in plain sight and holds no place in the light of democracy’s history. Fathers shape their daughters and sons, and from Zanetor’s eulogy we were given invaluable insight into how she and her siblings were shaped. Presidents shape nations, that is public work, and so the pain caused requires public scrutiny, recognition and healing.

The eulogy by the NDC predictably showered praise and reverence on Rawlings. But this is no longer about a living former president, but a legacy of a nation in need of healing.

It is time. Emotional Justice does not replace legal justice. It offers a path to reckon with and name untreated, and offers a healing that navigates the rocky terrain that there is not a singular narrative, not a singular truth – there are multiple truths. Rawlings remembered by family and party is one narrative. Rawlings relationship with the Diaspora is another narrative. Rawlings impact on derailing families whose fathers were murdered, traumatizing their children, silencing their pain, while continuing to celebrate and jubilate over a time in which blood was spilled and continues to stain rather than cleanse, is another. All are truths. All have not been publicly heard. National healing requires they must be.

There is no easy, straight-forward route here. No easy answer, no space where one truth doesn’t hurt, even as it heals. Such is the complexity of this particular president and the legacy he leaves behind.

What cannot happen is a continued single story that smothers that space of violence, pain, trauma and the lives impacted by it. We don’t know what happened for those families. We know that six judges were executed, that people were incarcerated. I remember as an adult learning from my mother what happened on the night of the 1966 coup. I knew that coup as a date in a nation’s history. I learned the story of what it meant from a mother who lived through it, and dealt with its aftermath.

Stories. They are a tool, a strategy to connect to a national healing. They are part of a culture of ritual and remembering. A Day of National Healing, one that publicaly names and honours those killed by Rawlings and his administration, that hears from the children of those slain, who they were to them and for them, is crucial. This matters because an integral way to not repeat a past of pain is to name it, acknowledge how it shaped you, in order to create a way forward through it.

There is also the darkness of a trauma that shapes the traumatized and their relationship to nations and to power. Untreated trauma can make people dangerous, can derail their emotionality, can do lasting damage. So, healing is about honoring the fullest story of a now gone leader, it is also about telling total truths about a nation’s history.

Healing is not a political project, but there is no question that there is a politics to this healing. This is tender terrain that must be navigated thoughtfully, but navigate it we must.

“We must never forget our past or erase the memories of where we come,so said Rawlings.  Let those words be fuel to ignite a national healing where we pour light onto some of the darkest parts of his own past and its toll in order to ease the pain of many within a nation, and begin a healing.

Ghana, let’s pursue Emotional Justice.

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