All summer, Ghana’s capital, Accra, swirled with rumors of John Atta Mills’s ill health and death. The Ghanian president was rarely seen in public, except when a Nigerian cargo plane crash-landed in early June at the airport in Accra, killing 10 people.
After Mr. Mills toured the site, he retreated from public view, leaving his vice president, John Dramani Mahama, to attend public functions.
In barbershops and at roadside chop bars, and even on Facebook, speculation that he was near death was rife, much to the chagrin of his media team who quickly called local journalists to the airport to see him off on a previously unscheduled trip to New York. The photo-op, in which Mr. Mills declared he was not dead, only fueled the fire.
Still, Ghana’s minister for information, Fritz Baffour, told Rendezvous late last month that Mr. Mill’s health was fine except for the normal aches and pains of an aging former athlete.
“He has all the problems of old jocks,” the aide said. “He’s going into a very torturous circuit of campaigning. There’s no cause for alarm.” He attributed the rumors to political opponents. At the end of June, after a 10-trip consulting with doctors in New York, Mr. Mills jogged off a Delta Airlines flight into throngs of supporters, the picture of health. Then, on Tuesday came the news that he had lost a battle with throat cancer.
His untimely death isn’t likely to throw the country into a crisis, but in the months ahead its democratic institutions will be tested.
The fear in Ghana is that chaos could reign in a way that was averted four years ago, when Mr. Mills — who was known for his peaceful stabilizing influence — won the presidency by a razor-thin margin after a hard-fought campaign.One of his nicknames was “King of Peace,” and he wasn’t an aggressive, in-your-face- politician. That played a role in the effort to keep the country from falling into the kind of post-election clashes that have occurred in other countries in the region.
Mr. Mills, 68, was to have run for re-election this December against the same person he narrowly beat in 2008, Nana Akufo-Addo. He had secured the nomination of his party, the National Democratic Congress, to run for a second term, after beating back a primary challenge by a popular former first lady, Nana Konadu Agyemang-Rawlings. Ms. Agyemang-Rawlings and her husband, Jerry, were once staunch Mills supporters. Mr. Mills once served as a vice president to Mr. Rawlings. But recently, the Rawlings turned against him, accusing his team of mismanagement.
While Mr. Mills handily defeated the former first lady in the primaries, analysts have told reporters that they expect her to claim an automatic nomination now that he has died. But not everyone is keen on another Rawlings leading Ghana.
Alban Bagbin, Ghana’s health minister and a member of the NDC legal team, told Reuters the party will hold an extraordinary meeting to select a new candidate, including other high-profile leaders who may not have wanted to challenge Mr. Mills.
Mr. Mills oversaw the transformation of Ghana into an oil exporting country. He worked out a controversial $3-billion loan from China to speed up infrastructure development and secured a $600-million three-year loan from the International Monetary Fund in 2009. During his tenure, the Ghanaian currency, the cedi, lost value.
Mr. Mills was also somewhat of a darling to the United States. President Barack Obama visited Ghana in 2009 to show support for Mr. Mills and invited him to the White House, Camp David and the G20 summit in Chicago this year. He hailed him as a “strong advocate for human rights and for the fair treatment of all Ghanians.”
Mr. Akufo-Addo, who was already campaigning against Mr. Mills, and is also quite popular, has a significant head start on whoever his eventual opponent will be in December. Part of his summer was spent traveling and meeting world leaders.Other candidates could be John Dramani Mahama, 53, Mr. Mills’s vice president, who was sworn in as president hours after Mr. Mills’s death.
If Mr. Mahama is a candidate, he won’t have the luxury of time to show how he differs from Mr. Mills as some other vice presidents who succeeded their fallen principals have. Nigeria’s Goodluck Jonathan was sworn in as president in 2010 after Umaru Yar’Adua died. And Malawi’s Bingu wa Mutharika and Guinea’s Malam Bacai Sanha died in office this year after proclaiming their health was fine.
Ghana, with its population or 24 million, remains one of the more stable countries in West Africa. A major cocoa producer, it has had a good record of power changing hands peacefully. Many will look to see if that tradition continues this year.