H.E. John Evans Atta Mills, the president of the Republic of Ghana, passed away Tuesday in the capital Accra. He was 68. News of his passing has shocked and saddened a nation, and indeed an entire continent. In this time of immense tragedy, there may however be cause for optimism; a fitting legacy to the passing of this great statesman.
The late president, known affectionately in public circles as ‘Uncle Atta’ was much loved and respected by the people he led for the better part of four years. President Mills was born in 1944 in Ghana’s Central Region. He was a graduate of the University of Ghana, the London School of Economics, and the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London where received his PhD in 1968. Over the next 25 years, he led a distinguished career as an academic, publishing numerous articles on taxation and economic development and teaching at various institutions including the University of Ghana and the LSE. In 1971, he was awarded the Fulbright Scholarship and spent time as a visiting scholar at Stanford University.
His political career began soon after the introduction of multi-party democracy to Ghana in 1992. He served as Ghana’s vice president between 1996 and 2000. In 2000, after former President Jerry John Rawlings had served his constitutionally mandated two terms in office, President Mills was chosen as the flag bearer of the incumbent political party, the National Democratic Congress. The elections resulted in narrow loss for President Mills. His gracious concession of defeat, despite a narrow margin of victory and the fact that his party was the incumbent party, was widely commended across the globe because, sadly, this was not the norm in African politics. A second run for president in 2004 again resulted in a loss, this time by an even narrower margin. Third time however proved lucky for the late president. In 2008, he defeated a candidate from the incumbent National Patriotic Party by a razor slim margin of victory and was sworn in Ghana’s president in January 2009. This marked the second time in Ghana’s young democracy that the incumbent party had peacefully ceded power to the opposition. Both times, President Milles was involved, as gracious in victory as he was in defeat.
Immediately after ascending to the presidency the late president immediately began attempts to unite a deeply divided Ghanaian society. He pledged in his inaugural address to be "a father to all." The role he played as champion of democracy, a pacifist and a unifier will remain a large part of his legacy. His passing marks the saddest day in Ghanaian history.
However, in this time of immense sadness there may be some cause for optimism. Hours after the President’s death, the Ghanaian public was informed via a press statement signed by the chief of staff. Soon afterwards, as stipulated by the constitution, Vice President John Mahama was sworn in as president. This stands in sharp contrast to other nations in Africa where the passing of a sitting President were followed by long periods of silence and confusion (Malawi) or attempts to subvert the constitution and illegally transfer power (Togo and Guinea). This tragedy has drawn together a society usually sharply divided along political lines. Upon hearing the news, the major opposition candidate in the upcoming elections, Nana Akuffo-Addo, immediately announced a suspension of his ongoing campaign tour as a show of respect. During the vice president’s swearing-in ceremony, the Ghanaian parliament, usually the scene of vicious partisan political debates, presented a somber and united front.
The death of a sitting president is a test for any democracy and it seems it is one which Ghana has passed with flying colors. This is welcome news; particularly because in five months, Ghana is due to hold the most keenly contested elections in its history. Hopefully, this spirit of unity and patriotism will last during the elections and beyond, allowing Ghana, once again to serve as a shining example of the growth of democracy and effective institutions in Africa. There would be no better way to honor a truly great man who embodied those ideals and gave his life wholly and completely to the service of his country.