Photo Credit: Flickr/ United Nations Photo

In some countries, the unexpected death of a president sets off a chaotic scramble for power, with constitutional guidelines for succession largely ignored. But faced with just that predicament, Ghana went the opposite route. President John Atta Mills died unexpectedly of throat cancer on Tuesday, but there was no confusion or uncertainly concerning the next step, as Vice President John Mahama was calmly sworn in to replace him only hours later.

Mills’ passing is a tragic loss for Ghana and Africa, but the swift and peaceful transfer of authority to his deputy is a victory. Ghana has long been held up as a model for democratic governance in Africa, and this handover solidified that standing. The strength of Ghana’s democratic institutions is all the more impressive when compared to other once-promising democracies, such as Mali, that have succumbed to conflict and military coups.

Mills is the third African president to die in office this year, following the passing of Guinea-Bissau’s Malam Bacai Sanhá in January and Malawi’s Bingu wa Mutharika in April. Malawi’s transition was not as smooth as Ghana’s, as there was confusion following Mutharika’s death (which was not confirmed until two days later) and a power struggle ensued. But Vice President Joyce Banda eventually took power, and has taken several steps to reverse some of Mutharika’s increasingly unpopular policies. This, too, was a victory for democracy and institutions.

I lived in Ghana during a critical period, in 2000 and 2001, when Mills was vice president, serving under President Jerry Rawlings. Rawlings was a boisterous and erratic leader, in power for 20 years, who early in his career led two military coups but over time moved Ghana (perhaps reluctantly) toward democratic rule. Mills, a laid-back former law professor, lived under Rawlings’ large shadow but was his party’s presidential candidate in the 2000 elections. He lost to John Kufour of the main opposition party, leading to one of Africa’s first peaceful transfers of power from one party to another through elections. At the time there was real uncertainty whether Rawlings would step down and he and Mills would admit defeat. Their decision to do so helped set Ghana on the democratic course it maintains today.

Mills ran again in 2004, losing for a second time to Kufour, and again in 2008. Those later elections were extremely close, accompanied by concerns that the small margins could stoke tensions and lead to violence, an all-too-familiar outcome elsewhere in Africa. But Mills ended up victorious and power was once again transferred peacefully between parties.

With presidential elections scheduled for this December, Mills was planning to run once more. It seems likely that the new president will take his place on the ballot. What seems certain, though, is that the elections will happen, on time and in an orderly, credible fashion, much the same way Mills was replaced following his untimely death. During this difficult time for Ghana, the strengths of its democracy and institutions exemplified by this transfer is something to celebrate.


Date: Saturday, July 28, 2012 5:24 AM
From: Kolade Umoru, Abuja

Ghana is already leading with her democratic credentials,epecially under the late Atta-Mills we only hope Mahama will sustain it.

Date: Wednesday, August 1, 2012 1:09 AM
From: Ibrahim Wallee
CR-Network Ghana
Accra, Ghana

Indeed we Ghanaians are proud of this event at this difficult time of our political history, to have a sitting president die for the first time.
It goes without simmering differences though in views, perceptions and opinions about non-disclosure of the health status of the late president prior to his death setting up the tone for a changing dynamics in the selection of future presidential candidates by political parties in this country.

Many are of the view that, the health status of party presidential candidates should be scrutinized at the selection stages of party candidates vying for the presidency, so as to avoid selection of candidates with terminal diseases or illness that goes to affect their effectiveness in office when elected as the national president, which has its own repercussions on the national economy when they mal-perform.

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