After death of Ghana's president, a calm transition

After the death of President John Evans Atta Mills, Ghana peacefully transferred power to its vice president – a reminder that not all political transitions in West Africa are violent.

Christian Thompson/AP
Ghana Vice President John Mahama (c.) sits on a chair after being sworn in as new President of Ghana in parliament after the passing of the late Ghana President John Atta Mills in Accra, Ghana, Tuesday, July 24.

Ghana’s vice president John Dramani Mahama was sworn in as president last night after the sudden death of former leader John Evans Atta Mills yesterday afternoon. 

Mr. Atta Mills's death came just months before Ghana's presidential and parliamentary elections, and it could set off a close contest between the ruling National Democratic Congress (NDC) and its main rival, the New Patriotic Party.

But in West Africa – a region where coup d'états have been a common method for transferring power – a tightly contested political race is considered a distinct advantage. 

“Most Ghanaians know that nothing will happen and the democratic process will continue to go on,” says Dr. Kwadwo Adjei Tutu of the Institute of Economic Affairs, a political think tank based in Accra. “But there could be a significant power play there" between those who supported Mills and those who supported the wife of NDC party founder and former President Jerry Rawlings, whose relationship had grown tense over the past
year.. "Mahama knows the political terrain and the scene. We will see how the power play goes on for him within his own party.”

Ghana, the first nation on the continent to gain independence from colonial rule in 1957, has long been regarded as an exemplar of democracy and good governance in a region with a political history marked by instability, coup d’états, civil conflict, and military rule. It has held four relatively peaceful democratic elections since its transition from military to civilian rule during the presidency of Mr. Rawlings, who seized power in a coup d’état in the early 1980s and later became a democratically elected president, holding office throughout the 1990s.

Mills was the country's fourth democratically elected president since the end of military rule.

“This is the saddest day in our nation's history. Tears have engulfed our nation and we're deeply saddened and distraught. I never imagined that one day I will address our nation in such difficult circumstances,” said President Mahama, according to a CNN report. “I’m personally devastated. I've lost a father, I've lost a friend, I've lost a mentor and a senior comrade.”

Mahama will complete the late leader’s term. Ghana’s election commission has stated that December polls will go ahead as planned.

Analysts say that Mills’ death will not have a negative impact on the elections, but that there could be internal party wrangling over who will be the presidential candidate for the ruling NDC, a party founded by the former military leader turned democratically elected Rawlings, whose presence and influence over internal party politics still looms large.

Mahama, long regarded a rising star in Ghana’s political scene, has served in parliament since 1996 and served as Minister of Communications until 2001. He ran with Mills during the 2008 elections and took the vice presidency when Mills claimed victory.

But it remains unclear whether Mahama will win the party’s approval to run as their presidential candidate. An emergency party congress will be held to elect a new candidate, according to a report by Reuters.

The ruling NDC party has faced internal divisions in the past year. Rawlings openly criticized Mills, claiming the late president was not tough enough on corruption and that he had failed to uphold the party’s values and principles. The divisions deepened after Rawling’s wife and former first lady Nana Konadu Agyemang-Rawlings ran against the late president in the race to become the ruling party’s candidate in the 2012, although Mills claimed a landslide victory – 96 percent – at the party’s national congress in Sunyani last July.

Mills’ death comes after weeks of speculation about the state of his health and a recent visit to the United States for a medical check up. Mills was Ghana’s first head of state to die in office.

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