Johannesburg — Ghana's former president, Jerry Rawlings, appeared on Thursday before the country's National Reconciliation Commission, which was set up in 2002 to investigate human rights' abuses committed under five military regimes, including his own.
The former Ghanaian head of state led two coups d'etat in 1979 and again in 1981. During the first, he ordered the execution of three former military leaders on charges of corruption.
Rawlings, 55, was summoned to answer questions about the murders in 1982 of three high court judges and a retired military officer and in relation to extra-judicial military killings in 1984. Earlier hearings by witnesses had linked Rawlings to the deaths. During his brief, voluntary appearance - which lasted 30 minutes and was broadcast live on national radio and television - the former president was asked about recordings allegedly including the interrogation of people involved in the killings.
He told the commission that there could have been extra-judicial killings while he was in office, but said he had not witnessed any. The Ghana Bar association and rights' organisations claim that up to 200 people disappeared in the 1980s under Rawlings.
The executive secretary of the commission, Ken Attafuah, said Rawlings had earlier denied in writing that he had anything to do with the deaths under review. But the nine-member panel dismissed this submission. "He has written to deny the allegations. However, he did not follow our stipulated procedures, therefore we regard his denial as not valid," Attafuah said.
Addressing the commission and a packed public gallery, Rawlings said he had made an audio recording of the confession of a soldier allegedly linked to the 1982 deaths, but no longer had the tape in his possession. Rawlings said he had done this to free the man's soul as he prepared to meet his maker. And, although he professed not to recall precisely what was said in the confession, Rawlings concluded that the essence was to exonerate his one-time national security chief, Kojo Tsikata, from the killings as had earlier been alleged.
Attafuah said this week "there are documents before us which mention Mr Rawlings and Kojo Tsikata as being possibly connected to or involved in those killings". Tsikata himself testified before the commission on Tuesday.
Rawlings also acknowledged Thursday that he had watched a few minutes of a 1984 videotape of the interrogation of injured soldiers, but had not seen the subsequent alleged executions of the men as he had left the screening "to attend to other pressing matters," adding "I asked that the film be taken away. I do not know where the film is now".
He said he was prepared to give more details about other alleged violations of human rights under his two military administrations, but the commission declined the offer and asked no further questions about Rawlings' possible involvement in other much publicised military-era killings in Ghana. "We subpoenaed you here for specific purposes," said commission chairman, Justice Amua Sekyi, noting: "if we need you again, we will call you".
Ghana's National Reconciliation Commission, loosely based on South Africa's now legendary Truth and Reconciliation Commission, has heard more than a thousand testimonies and has another six months to go.
Allegations of murder, torture and other human rights' abuses dogged the Rawlings' regime in its early years in power. The charismatic one-time flight-lieutenant ruled as a military leader for more than ten years until multiparty elections in 1992, which he won. Rawlings was re-elected in 1996, earning a second and final four-year term as president. In line with the constitution, he stepped down in 2000.
His vice president and handpicked successor, John Atta-Mills, was defeated in the 2000 poll by the current president, John Kufuor. Ghana is scheduled to hold general elections later this year in the former British colony, which was the first black African country first to win independence in 1957 from the continent's European masters.
Several thousands of Rawlings' supporters, wearing t-shirts bearing the name of his National Democratic Congress party (NDC), thronged outside the court room, chanting "JJ," which stands for Jerry John, the initials that make up his popular nickname. Riot police were on standby, but Rawlings' appearance passed without incident.
"I wish to thank you sincerely for your support," he told the crowd as he left the court room. Taking a swipe at his long-time political adversary, he said "As for the Kufuor government, they are so corrupt that we will deal with them at the appropriate time". Rawlings' own government faced allegations of corruption in his final years.
The NDC has accused President Kufuor's New Patriotic Party (NPP) government of setting up the National Reconciliation Commission to conduct a political witch hunt and hound its opponents.
Kufuor has countered this argument saying that those who lost family members and other loved ones, or who suffered under former military regimes, must be heard and have their grievances addressed. The only motive driving the commission, concludes Kufuor, is to get at the truth, heal past wounds and strive for lasting reconciliation among all Ghanaians.