ACCRA - The death of Ghana's former president Jerry John Rawlings at age 73 on Thursday in Accra, sparked mixed reactions across the nation.  Some were saddened by Rawlings death while others spoke of human rights abuses under his rule. 

Jerry John Rawlings leaves a complicated legacy in Ghana of both violence and democracy.     

While seen as a champion of the poor, and a fighter against corruption, rights activists accused him of jailing and killing opponents.    

Supporters celebrated Rawlings’ life at a vigil in Accra Sunday night, held by the party he founded and served twice as Ghana’s elected president — the National Democratic Congress (NDC).    

Musicians and dancers celebrate former President Jerry John Rawlings at a vigil on Nov 15, 2020. (Stacey Knott/VOA)

“Our founder who has been a legend, and he is still a legend for centuries to come, his legacy reigns, and we are still going to have him in our memory.  NDC, as a party, we are going to celebrate a week-long for our departed hero,”  said Hajai Mariama Zakeri, an organizer for the NDC.  

Before he was elected, Rawlings orchestrated two coups, in 1979 and in 1981.  But he surprised critics by then transitioning Ghana to democratic elections.    

David Agbee, a governance and security expert, says Rawlings was unpredictable and “complex.” 

“After the 1981 coup, any political scientist, international relations, or any person in this country will tell you categorically that the emergence of Rawlings has more or less — or profoundly — stopped all coups in Ghana.”  

Rawlings surprised critics once again by leaving office in 2001.   But he continued to hold influence in Ghana.  

After Rawlings’ death at age 73  on Nov 12, supporters mourned outside his residence in Accra as his party’s top officials visited with the family.   

Rita Addo says Rawlings cared for the country’s poor.  

Rita Addo outside the residence of Rawlings, in Accra, Nov 13 2020. (Stacey Knott/VOA)

She says he created policies for children to go to school and employment so they could then get jobs, which were flourishing before he left power.  Addo says she will remember him as someone who came to help the poor.   

In announcing Rawlings’ death on Thursday, President Nana Akufo-Addo said: “a great tree has fallen, and Ghana is poorer for this loss.”    

The announcement said flags would fly at half-staff for a week and then the nation would hold a state funeral, though no date has yet been set.