Ghana’s strongman Jerry Rawlings helped to manoeuvre his former vice-president, John Atta Mills, into place as the candidate of the National Democratic Congress (NDC) in the 2008 elections when President John Kufuor’s term ended.
Rawlings thought the professorial Atta Mills – the very opposite of himself, a forceful, populist military leader who had originally seized power in a 1979 coup – would be a weak puppet president, allowing him to pull the strings.
But, as with some similar attempted manoeuvres by other retiring or retired African leaders, Rawlings underestimated the influence of power. Once in office, Atta Mills developed a mind of his own, asserting himself.
Atta Mills, who died this week of cancer a few days after his 68th birthday, refused to appoint Rawlings’s allies to the cabinet or to other top government jobs, said a Ghanaian journalist who followed his career closely.
Atta Mills also declined Rawlings’s very public demands that he act against senior government officials accused of serious corruption.
Atta Mills and his government defended themselves by saying they had to proceed cautiously as several recent prosecutions of senior government officials had failed, causing considerable embarrassment to the NDC and loss of support.
Rawlings’s calls for corruption charges, especially against financier Alfred Agbesi Woyome, who had poured millions into NDC coffers, could perhaps be written off as politically motivated because of his political ambitions which he tried to channel through his wife, Nana Konadu Agyeman Rawlings, after he himself reached his term limit in 2000 and had to retire.
But Atta Mills trounced Nana Rawlings in the NDC primary elections to choose a candidate to fight the presidential elections in December this year against Nana Akufo-Addo, the candidate of the New Patriotic Party.
After that Nana Rawlings launched a new party, ostensibly designed to advance the cause of women but “basically just designed to muddy the NDC waters” in the December poll, the Ghanaian journalist said.
But if Rawlings’s demand that Atta Mills should get tougher on corruption was political, it was also a demand shared by some other weighty personalities in Ghana’s establishment with no love for Rawlings, like former justice minister and attorney general Martin Amidu.
Scandal dogged the election campaign and is expected to continue to do so, casting a shadow over whoever succeeds Atta Mills as the NDC’s candidate.
The party’s leadership still has to meet to decide on a new standard-bearer with vice-president John Mahama, now sworn in as president, evidently the favourite.
Atta Mills otherwise had a fairly good if not spectacular career as president in his first term which started in 2008 and would have ended with the December elections.
Essentially he followed the path of sensible economic policies trod by Kufuor, although the economy surged on his watch, growing 14 percent last year, mainly because oil revenues came on stream.
Atta Mills’s lack of charisma in a sense counted for him, at least abroad, and his election, bringing about an orderly transition via the ballot from Kufuor’s NPP to the NDC, cemented Ghana’s reputation as one of Africa’s most mature democracies.
And Atta Mills’s own scholarly demeanour also contrasted favourably with the stereotypes of African leadership. It represented a new breed of African leaders, with him holding a law degree from the University of Ghana and a doctorate from the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London and having been a Fulbright scholar at Stanford University in California.
Atta Mills was known as “The Prof” and had taught law for 25 years, although he had also cherished political ambitions for some time, serving as Rawlings’s vice- president and running unsuccessfully for president in 2000 and 2004 before winning in 2008.
A specialist in taxes, he had been commissioner of revenue before becoming president, giving him a reputation for fiscal probity – even if undercut by a reluctance to pursue corruption allegations.
Nevertheless, the New York Times quoted Rod Alence, a Ghana expert at Wits University, as saying: “Mills’s historical significance is in the consolidation of democracy in Ghana. To have someone like him, who was never known as being charismatic, was crucial in setting up Ghana in a two-party system.”
The swift and smooth inauguration of vice-president Mahama as president days after Atta Mills’s death added to the favourable impression of political maturity.
International commentators compared it to many other African countries where the sudden deaths in office of presidents sparked unrest and coups.
“After two decades of evolving multi-party democracy, its institutions are about as robust as those of any state on the continent,” the Financial Times said of Ghana.
In 2009, US President Barack Obama acknowledged Ghana’s role-model status when he chose it for his first African presidential visit – shunning Kenya, motherland of his father, because of its much patchier democratic record.
Obama said Atta Mills had “tirelessly worked to improve the lives of the Ghanaian people. Mills helped promote economic growth in Ghana in the midst of challenging global circumstances and strengthened Ghana’s strong tradition of democracy”.
However, the way Atta Mills and his government handled his illness detracted from the general praise.
Mills had cancer of the throat which had spread, and must have known he did not have long to live. A few weeks ago some Ghana media even reported he had died in the US, where he had gone for treatment.
Atta Mills returned home shortly after and did a little jog for the TV cameras at the airport to demonstrate that he was supposedly in good health.
The president ought instead to have pulled out of the election to avoid the disruption that has now been caused, many observers felt.
Atta Mills is survived by his wife, Ernestina Naadu Mills, and their son, Sam.