Today, 24th July 2012, President John Evans Atta-Mills passed away while in hospital in Accra after a long battle with throat cancer. Aides report that he had been admitted to 37 Military Hospital hours before, after complaining of pains the previous day. The Presidential Office made a press statement to report the “sudden and untimely death of the President of the Republic of Ghana”. Mills’ death comes just four months before what are predicted to be highly competitive presidential and parliamentary elections scheduled for 7th December. Atta-Mills’ death follows in the wake of other recent presidents in Africa to die while in office including Malawi’s president Bingu wa Mutharika earlier this year, Umaru Musa Yar’Adua in Nigeria in 2010 and Zambia’s President Levy Mwanawasa in late 2008. It is a testament to the increasing acceptance of the formal rules of democracy that as per constitutional provisions, in each of these cases the vice-president has taken office. Indeed in Ghana, within hours of reports of his death an emergency meeting was called at Parliament and at 18.00 GMT on the same day Ghana’s Vice-President John Dramani Mahama was sworn in.
The health of the president had been a regular news topic in Ghana even before Atta-Mills took office in 2008. Over the last four years there were frequent reports of his deteriorating health including increasing loss of vision and shortness of breath. The president and ruling party, the National Democratic Congress (NDC), knew the president’s health was becoming a concern to voters and following his last check up in the U.S.A. Mills, in an out-of-character theatrical display, did a short jog on the landing strip when he set down at Kotoka International Airport. Increasingly however, Atta-Mills shied away from public meetings and recently declined his invitation to speak at the nationwide televised presidential candidate debates organized by the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA). Earlier this week the NDC began to state that Mills would not address the crowds during the 2012 campaign rallies across the country, but would sit and wave on the podium.
Atta-Mills will be remembered as a fatherly president, nicknamed “Uncle Atta” and famed for beginning his public addresses with the phrase “My brothers and sisters”. He spoke slowly and gently and his relatively simple demeanor helped his 2008 platform as a man with an incorruptible nature and good intentions for office. Mills will be remembered for overseeing the introduction of important legislation to Ghana perhaps most notably the Petroleum Revenue Management Act, 2011 which spells out in clear terms how Ghana’s new oil revenues should be managed, including the establishment of a stabilization and heritage fund, stringent internal auditing, and the creation of a Public Interest and Accountability Committee whose latest report Revenue Watch International say “sets a new standard for accountability” in Africa. Domestically, Mills’ attempt to reorganise the pay structure of the public sector with a move to a “single-spine” pay scale, as well as establishing a national commission to review Ghana’s current constitution were also highly popular moves.
For political analysts the death of Ghana’s president means that the next few weeks and months will be highly interesting. The main opposition party (the National Patriotic Party) have expressed their condolences and stopped their campaign tour. Today the NDC has been quiet on how it will proceed, although discussions are emerging to schedule a party congress to select the new flag bearer. It is difficult to see how the newly incumbent president John Mahama, popular both inside the party (although factions do exist) and with voters, will not win the ticket. If Mahama wins who he runs with will be the next big question. The Rawling’s family have displayed clear ambitions to regain a central position in the NDC with Nana Konadu (wife of ex-president Rawlings) competing against Mills in the NDC flag bearer elections last year. Although she received only 3 percent of delegate votes, ex-President Rawlings remains popular on the campaign trail and many inside the NDC would prefer to retain their alliance with him. For the Rawlings’, prior to the death of Mills they have been in the process of establishing their own party with its inauguration date set for 15th August. Now it remains to be seen whether the NDC will make a final attempt at trying to re-establish an alliance with President Rawlings and his wife or take them on in the December election. At least for today however, election fever has respectfully ceased in Ghana as Uncle Atta is remembered.