Pall bearers carry the coffin of the late Ghanaian President, Johns Evans Atta Mills in Accra, Ghana, Friday, Aug. 10, 2012. World leaders joined thousands of Ghanaians Friday for the funeral of President John Atta Mills, who came to symbolize Ghana's maturing democracy in a region long plagued by coups and disputed votes. (AP Photo/Sunday Alamba)

Dakar/Accra -

It was a final farewell fit for the man dubbed Ghana's “prince of peace”.

Doves were released into Accra's blue skies, a military band played, gospel singers sung, dignitaries from 53 countries turned out and 20,000 people gathered, dressed in red and black as a sign of mourning.

As the casket of late president John Atta Mills was lowered into the earth, a 21-gun salute sounded and African dignitaries from Senegal to South Africa stood by.

Mills' popularity was evident. US secretary of state Hillary Clinton took time out from her African tour to attend the burial. Malian Vice President Cheick Modibo Diarra came, despite being in the midst of tough negotiations pertaining to the future of his deeply troubled country.

The 68-year-old late president was credited with successfully leading Ghana into a new era of transparently managed oil wealth and promising development.

But Mills was a groundbreaking leader in more ways than one. In an African era synonymous with the death of old ways of life, of corruption and of power-hungry presidents who failed to loosen their grips on power, Mills - an advocate of human rights, of transparency, of a bright future for West Africa - was a leader that Ghana did not expect to lose so soon.

Across Africa, expensive state burials are more commonly associated with the loss of older, more backward-looking leaders. But many in Ghana felt that the ceremony accorded to Mills was justified.

“At last, the principles and godly value he stood for were truly justified at the end, leaving us all to reflect more on our lives,” wrote one Ghanaian viewer on a local news website.

“A great tree has fallen,” wrote another. “I criticized you at points, but, after your death, I remembered how important you were to our dear nation,” he said.

Others were more cynical. Although Mills brought Ghana a long way into the future, Ghana's path to development is not yet complete, they said. “How typical that the national electricity company had a power cut on this day,” one viewer wrote on the site.

As Mills' casket lay in its final resting place, family members and former health minister Mary Grant laid wreaths brimming with lilies and bright yellow flowers. They were said to represent the beauty and brevity of life. A ceremonial sword belonging to Mills as the head of the armed forces was presented to his widow, a marriage counselor.

“Everything from the flowers to the doves and the military order symbolized peace at the burial,” said Ernest Adama, a politics student from Accra. “The president brought us peace, so now we are giving it back to him,” he said.

As the ceremony closed, Mills' brother, Dr Cadman Mills, paid a personal tribute to his sibling, whose last words were “God, I leave it all to you,” - and to the government for “such a moving ceremony.”

“Knowing our brother, and how religious he was, I am sure he would not have liked anything better,” he said. “But as a modest man, he probably would have been a little embarrassed.”

Funerals often indicate closing chapters. But for many in Ghana, Mills ushered in a new chapter that they hope will continue under new President John Dramani Mahama's leadership.

Mahama, who is 58, is expected to stand for re-election in December in Mills' place. He has spoken out about his respect for the late president, who he saw as a “mentor” and “a man of tremendous character.”

As Ghana looks to the future, those same qualities are beginning to be bestowed upon Mahama, a former historian and critically acclaimed writer.

“Mills entered politics not to be something, but to do something,” Mahama said Friday. “As I look at the landscape, I see unity, a sense of purpose, resilience, determination and resolve to proper. We're indeed a nation with a common purpose,” he said. - Sapa-dpa