ACCRA, Ghana (AP) - President John Atta Mills' election victory
secured Ghana's reputation as one of the most mature democracies in West Africa, a position further solidified Tuesday when the vice
president took over only hours after the 68-year-old president died
five months before finishing his first term.
John Mahama's swift inauguration underscored Ghana's stability
in a part of the world where the deaths of other leaders have
"We are deeply distraught, devastated as a country," Mahama
said after his swearing-in ceremony, where he raised the golden
staff of office above his head.
Ghanaian state-run television stations GTV and TV3 broke into
their regular programming to announce the president's death Tuesday
afternoon. Government officials did not release the cause of his
death, which came three days after his 68th birthday.
Rumors had swirled about Atta Mills' health in recent months
after he made several trips to the United States, and opposition
newspapers had reported he was not well enough to run for a second
Some radio stations even announced that he was dead during one
of his recent trips to the States. When Atta Mills returned to
Ghana, he jogged at the airport and blasted those who had falsely
reported his death.
On the streets of Cape Coast, kilometers (80 miles) from Accra,
people held radios to their ears on the street, listening to the
funeral hymns playing on FM stations and waiting for more
information about the president's unexpected death.
"His speeches were full of a spirit of love and peace," said
Efua Mensima, 45. "He was soft-spoken. I wept when I heard of his
In a predominantly Ghanaian section of Ivory Coast's commercial
capital, a group of 10 men tried to organize a bus to take them to
Ghana for the president's funeral.
"The Ghanaian people were happy with this president and his
program for the development of the country," said Nour Ousmane
Aladji, 27, a taxi driver who moved to Abidjan in 2000.
Chris Fomunyoh, the senior director for Africa for the
Washington-based National Democratic Institute for International
Affairs, said that Ghana's democracy could weather the death of a
In other nations in West Africa, the death of a ruler usually
spells a coup, as it did in neighboring Guinea following the 2008
death of longtime dictator Lansana Conte, and Togo, where the
military seized power after the president's death in 2005 in order
to install the leader's son.
"Ghanaian democracy has been tested and its institutions
function well," said Fomunyoh. "There's no reason to think that
Ghana and its democracy will not handle this event properly."
Atta Mills was elected in a 2008 runoff vote that was the
closest in the country's history - and his third presidential bid.
"People are complaining. They're saying that their standard of
living has deteriorated these past eight years," he told The
Associated Press at the time. "So if Ghana is a model of growth,
it's not translating into something people can feel."
He went on to serve as president as Ghana began grappling with
how to deal with its newfound oil wealth from offshore fields
discovered in the last five years. The country of about 25 million
saw a growth rate of more than 14 percent last year, though some
analysts say the handling of his time in office was less than
The government got involved in a dispute with Kosmos Energy, the
owner of the country's Jubilee oil field, a spat that resulted in a
delay in the proceeds from the country's nascent oil trade, said
Peter Pham, director of the Africa Center at the Atlantic Council.
Atta Mills also was one of the only leaders in West Africa who
didn't back plans for an intervention force during last year's
near-civil war in Ivory Coast. Because of its shared border, Ghana
became the main smuggling route for Ivorian cocoa.
The late president spent much of his career teaching at the
University of Ghana. He earned a doctorate from London's School of
Oriental and African Studies before becoming a Fulbright scholar at
Stanford University in Palo Alto, California.
Atta Mills also served as vice president under Jerry Rawlings, a
coup leader who was later elected president by popular vote and
surprised the world by stepping down after the 2000 vote.
Richard Downie, the deputy director of the Africa program at the
Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said
that Atta Mills may be remembered more for what his election in
2008 symbolized than for what he did as president.
He defeated the ruling party by the slimmest of margins, marking
two successful handovers of power in Ghana, a benchmark used by
political scientists to measure a mature democracy.
"It showed just how robust Ghana's democracy was, and it proved
here in the U.S. what a success Ghana had become in terms of its
political maturity," he said.