A Sudden Death in Ghana: President John Atta Mills (1944-2012)

Though Mills' passing was sudden, the encouraging sign was the smoothness with which Ghana's democratic processes kicked into gear

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Bai Jingshan / Xinhua / Landov

Photo taken on March 6, 2012, shows Ghanian President John Evans Atta Mills (R front) attending the ceremony celebrating the 55th anniversary of Ghana's independence in Accra.

The sudden death of Ghana’s President John Atta Mills, months before he was due to stand for re-election, is tragic and unexpected but unlikely to create chaos in what is West Africa‘s most stable and established democracy. In line with the constitution, Vice-President John Dramani Mahama was sworn in within hours and will serve as caretaker President until fresh elections in December. Analysts took that smooth transition as reassurance of the robustness of Ghana’s institutions. “The constitutional process kicked into gear pretty well,” said Antony Goldman of the Africa-focused group PM Consulting. Razia Khan, head of Africa research at Standard Chartered bank, said: “The smooth inauguration of Mahama as President is an encouraging sign of strength of Ghana’s democratic institutions.” She added her information from contacts in Ghana was that Mahama was likely to be confirmed shortly as the ruling National Democratic Congress party’s candidate for President in elections in December.

(MORE: Ghana VP Sworn in Hours After President’s Death)

Mills, who celebrated his 68th birthday on Saturday, had recently received medical treatment in the U.S. and Ghanian newspapers have speculated he was suffering from throat cancer or a sinus condition. His staff told Reuters that he complained of pains on Monday and died early Tuesday when his condition worsened.

The former President, a social democrat, drew international admiration for his leadership and commitment to good governance. Mills said he was inspired by the social welfare ideas of the country’s first independence-era president, Kwame Nkrumah. Soon after he was elected, he announced the elimination of four cabinet ministries and promised steeps cuts in government spending, not least reducing the size of his presidential convoy. Mills also won praise for hisdeft handling of Ghana’s resources. Historically a producer of gold and cocoa, in 2007 Ghana discovered oil and in December 2010 the country pumped its first barrel. The results have been spectacular. The International Monetary Fund says Ghana’s economy grew a stunning 14.5% in 2011 and expects further expansion of 8% this year. In 2009, on his first presidential visit to Africa, President Barack Obama eschewed an expected visit to Kenya, where his father was born, and instead took a brief tour of Ghana in recognition of its achievements. In March, when Mills visited him in Washington, Obama called Ghana “a model for Africa in terms of its democratic process” and in a message of condolence Tuesday, he said Mills “helped promote economic growth in Ghana in the midst of challenging global circumstances and strengthened Ghana’s strong tradition of democracy … He was also a strong advocate for human rights and for the fair treatment of all Ghanaians.”

Last July, Mills was chosen as the NDC’s candidate for the 2012 presidential election, defeating Nana Konadu Agyemang-Rawlings, wife of the former president and 1981 coup leader, Jerry Rawlings. Mills’ death might potentially open up a fresh presidential candidacy battle within the NDC and Goldman described Mills’ death as a “test for the NDC and its integrity.” “They were supposed to start the presidential campaign on Monday, so there isn’t a lot of time,” said Goldman. “But this may help Ghana deal with it as quickly as possible. The challenge will be whether or not they can quickly rally around the selected candidate for the election.” Khan added: “Political analysts will be asking if this will alter the character of the NDC party. With the discovery of oil, the stakes are that much higher and many observers will be watching to see if the politics become more contentious as a result.”

(MORE: Photos of Ghana’s 50 Years of Independence)

Even if Mills’ death does cause ructions inside the NDC, however, they are not expected to throw off Ghana’s electoral timetable or its commitment to peaceful handovers of power. NDC candidates universally subscribe to Mills’ centrist brand of politics. Mahama, 53, whose autobiographical account of growing up in Ghana in the post-colonial earlier this year, My First Coup d’Etat – And Other True Stories from the Lost Decades of Africa, called Mills a “mentor” in his acceptance speech.

Ghana’s democracy stands in contrast to the turbulence of a region where the bulletoften reigns over the ballot box. Ghana has held four democratic elections since Rawlings’ coup in 1981. Elsewhere West Africa has seen coups in Mali and Guinea-Bissau this year. Last year neighboring Cote d’Ivoire suffered months of bloody violence following a disputed election. Changes of power in the regional powerhouse Nigeria are also rarely smooth. Already beset by a Muslim insurgency in the north and discontent in the oil fields of the south, Nigeria has a history of coups and when President Yar’Adua died in 2010, his vice-president Jonathan Goodluck faced days of street protests and state paralysis before he was finally sworn in. In March, Mills promised that whatever the result of the next election, it would be conducted with order. “We are going to ensure that there is peace before, during, after the election,” he said, “because when there is no peace, it’s not the elitists who will suffer, it’s the ordinary people who have elected us into office.” To ensure a fitting legacy, in a region of such unrest, his successors only need agree.

(ARCHIVE: The Saga of Ghana)