Ghana’s transition sets democratic example in Africa

John Atta Mills (24 July 2009)

The death of Ghana’s President John Atta Mills will be felt keenly in a country where the former academic was known fondly as “The Prof”.

But the smooth handover to a successor – John Mahama – highlights how far Ghana has gone on the road to democracy.

In a less democratic era – in the 1980s or the 1990s – the death of a Ghanaian leader would have caused fear and foreboding: Was the death suspicious? Who would take over? Would the army step in?

But it’s a measure of how the democratic process has become “normal” in Ghana that Mr Mahama – the vice-president – was swiftly sworn in.

There was no question of anything other than this happening.

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Ghana has become a country where the level of Value Added Tax is a real issue – not a country that fears a military coup or a rebellion. ”

“John Atta Mills came to leadership through an open and democratic process,” Kenya’s Prime Minister Raila Odinga told the BBC.

“It shows African democracy is maturing.”

Where Ghana has led, other countries have followed.

There are still disastrous conflicts in, for example, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Sudan, and autocratic leaders in Zimbabwe and Equatorial Guinea.

But the norm these days across the continent is for civilian leaders to be elected to office with various (but increasing) degrees of fairness.

‘Tone of decency’

I last met Mr Atta Mills in 2001 when he lost a presidential election.

Ever the gentleman, he readily conceded to his victorious rival.

He went on to become leader of the official opposition and finally won the presidency in the 2008 election.

Mr Atta Mills first came to political prominence in the late ’90s as vice-president under Jerry Rawlings.

A supporter of John Atta-Mills (January 2009)
John Atta Mills represented a new breed of African leaders

Mr Rawlings originally came to power in a coup as an air force flight lieutenant. That was in the bad old days of the 1980s.

But Mr Rawlings subsequently set the tone for decency in Ghanaian politics by retiring more or less graciously.

Mr Atta Mills and Mr Rawlings could not have been more different men.

Mr Rawlings, or “Jerry” as he is known to most Ghanaians, was a charismatic, sometimes quixotic leader.

He was never happier than when working a crowd with an impromptu speech.

In his heyday he was a superb performer.

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John Atta Mills

Ghana's President John Atta Mills (15 December 2010)
  • Born in western Ghana on 21 July 1944
  • Lawyer by profession
  • Lectured in law for more than 20 years
  • Vice-president from 1997 to 2001
  • Became president in 2009
  • Enjoyed swimming and hockey
  • Married to a marriage counsellor

Mr Atta Mills, or “The Prof”, was a much quieter politician.

He once almost bored me to sleep in an interview when he espoused some complex policy about changing Value Added Tax.

His supporters said he was a brilliant economist.

And that, really, is the point about Mr Atta Mills and his legacy for Ghana.

It has become a country where the level of Value Added Tax is a real issue – not a country that fears a military coup or a rebellion.

In recent years, following the discovery of oil, there have been widespread allegations that corruption is on the increase in Ghana.

But the fact that this is a hot topic is also, in a way, testimony to the openness of the political culture that a succession of Ghanaian leaders have fostered.

Ghana today is a genuine democracy where people are aware of their rights and actively try to find out what their politicians are up to.

The average Ghanaian voter is almost certainly better informed about, for example, what their Member of Parliament has done – or not done – than the average citizen of Britain.

Today the people of Ghana are mourning the death of their “Prof”.

But in their sadness they may also celebrate the sometimes boring – but sometimes brilliant – legacy of men like John Atta Mills.

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