Air Force Flight Lt. Jerry John Rawlings occupies a remarkable role in contemporary African affairs as perhaps only the second military man on this continent during its post-independence period to have taken power in two consecutive coups

The strongman ruler of neighboring Togo, Gen. Gnassingbe Eyadema, at age 28, led Africa's first modern coup in 1963, handed power over to a civilian leader, then toppled that government in 1967 and reinstalled himself.

Rawlings, 34, who said recently that he "was slightly naive" the last time around when a junior-officer palace coup in June 1979 put him in power, also handed over power to a civilian government. He then brought it down a little more than two years afterward with a predawn coup on Dec. 31.

In 1979, persistent reporters had little trouble getting to the gregarious leader for an interview. A champion of the common man, Rawlings' style then was a firm handshake and an informal "Hi, I'm Jerry" introduction. This time, interviews have been sparse.

At his one general press conference with foreign reporters recently, he said he "sincerely" wondered "how many of you here will give a deliberate distortion of what is going on in this country."

Rawlings remains, as he was in 1979, an immensely popular figure with low-income urban workers, but his standing is unclear in rural areas where more than 80 percent of Ghana's 14 million people live.

He has evaded setting a date for a possible return to elected civilian government, but has said his provisional National Defense Council is "interested in putting together a national team of people who are competent, committed and of faultless integrity."

Rawlings, who has made at least one public trip to Libya during the two years he was out of power, openly admires Col. Muammar Qaddafi's revolution as outlined in the latter's Green Book and reflected in the country's official name, the Socialist People's Libyan Arab Jamahiriya (State of the Masses). Rawlings has called Libya "a revolutionary dream."

Qaddafi was the first leader to congratulate Rawlings on his successful coup and the two countries quickly reestablished diplomatic ties broken in November 1980 by the deposed government of Hilla Limann. Limann accused the Libyans of recruiting Ghanaians for training to overthrow his government. The Libyans have reopened their "people's bureau," or embassy, in Accra and donated tons of badly needed food and medicine to Rawlings' government.

Eight of the band of ex-soldiers with Rawlings on the morning of the coup reportedly received military training in Libya. "We do not think that Libya was involved in the coup," said a well-informed non-Ghanaian source. "They trained some men but there are no indications that they were trained for a coup," the source said

As Rawlings begins putting in place his own revolution, only weeks away from Ghana's March 6 silver anniversary of independence, he may be forced to call on Qaddafi for more assistance. Domestic food supplies are expected to run out at the beginning of the rainy season in April.

"There is no excuse for our food crisis," said Rawlings in a speech outlining his reasons for the coup. "Why should people go hungry, when large tracts of fertile land lie idle and fertilizers also lie wastefully at [the] ports?"