John Atta Mills, who has died aged 68, was a quietly studious president of Ghana who benefited from a peaceful transfer of power ? still a rare event in Africa.

?A decent man, modest and reticent to the point of dullness, Mills was often accused of being a puppet of those more capable and outgoing than himself. He never quite emerged from the shadow of Jerry Rawlings, Ghana?s flamboyant military ruler for almost two decades, whom Mills served as a suitably deferential vice-president.
John Atta Mills

John Atta Mills
Yet his political life set an example to Africa because of the manner by which he gained power. Mills was an opposition leader who won the presidency in 2008 after defeating the ruling party?s candidate in a knife-edge election.
Closely fought polls are perilous moments in African politics. A few months before Mills?s victory, Zimbabwe had suffered appalling bloodshed when President Robert Mugabe lost the first round of a tight election, only to bludgeon his way to a hollow triumph in the second ballot. Earlier, Kenya had been torn apart by tribal violence after the disputed election of December 2007, with at least 1,500 people losing their lives.
These terrible events overshadowed Ghana?s preparation for its presidential poll in December 2008. President John Kufuor was stepping down in accordance with the constitution having served two terms ? itself a notable event on a continent where leaders routinely ignore term limits. No one could foresee whether the ruling New Patriotic Party?s candidate would triumph against Mills in the election. In the event, the contest was even closer than some expected, going to a second round and ending with victory for Mills by the narrowest of margins: he won 50.2 per cent of the popular vote.
Instead of treading the path to chaos as in Kenya and Zimbabwe, the ruling party promptly congratulated Mills on his victory and allowed him to take office. A smooth transfer of power duly took place ? and not a single life was lost. By managing this feat, Ghana showed that democracy can work in Africa.
This respect for constitutional proprieties was evident immediately after Mills?s death. Elsewhere in Africa, the sudden and unexpected demise of a president can often cause political crisis, with the leader?s departure typically being hushed up for a few days while his entourage work out what to do. In Ghana, however, Vice-President John Dramani Mahama took over within hours, entirely in accordance with the law.
John Atta Mills was born on July 21 1944 in the town of Tarkwa in what was then the British Crown Colony of Gold Coast. He was 13 when his homeland became the first colony in sub-Saharan Africa to achieve independence in 1957 as the new nation of Ghana.
Mills was, at heart, an academic rather than a politician. After graduating in Law from the University of Ghana in 1967, he spent most of the 1970s in Britain, studying first at the London School of Economics and then taking a doctorate at the School of Oriental and African Studies.
He returned to Ghana in the 1980s, becoming a political ally of Jerry Rawlings and eventually being appointed vice-president in 1997. He took over the leadership of Rawlings?s National Democratic Congress and lost two presidential elections before his victory in 2008. Under his presidency, Ghana became an oil producer from the Jubilee field discovered off its coastline, with Mills promising to avoid the waste and corruption indelibly linked with his country?s near neighbour, Nigeria.
Mills, who had been suffering from throat cancer, is survived by his wife, Ernestina, and one son.
John Atta Mills, born July 21 1944, died July 24 2012
Source: Kofi Addo


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