John Atta Mills, president of Ghana, died this week at a military hospital in the capital, Accra, five months short of finishing his first term in office. He was 68.

The government gave no cause of death, but Mr. Atta Mills had recently returned from eight days of treatment in the U.S.

Mr. Atta Mills presided over Ghana’s continuing — and, for the region, unusual — experiment in stable democracy. He was elected with a margin of less than one per cent at the end of 2008.

That the narrowness of the victory did not set-off an explosion of violence — as had occurred after elections in Ivory Coast and Kenya — was widely viewed as evidence of the maturity of democracy in Ghana. The country, in 1957, became the first African nation to declare independence.

Mr. Atta Mills was planning to seek re-election in December.

“His historical significance is in the consolidation of democracy in Ghana,” said Rod Alence, a Ghana expert at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. “To have someone like [Mr.] Mills, who was never known as being charismatic, was crucial in setting up Ghana in a two-party system.”

In Mr. Atta Mills’ time in office, Ghana became a significant oil exporter. But it was the nation’s political stability that helped the country win a prize, making Ghana the envy of its neighbours that made the country the site of the first sub-Saharan African visit by President Barack Obama — much to its neighbours envy — in 2009.

Mr. Atta Mills was succeeded by Vice-President John Dramani Mahama, who was immediately sworn in — a further indication of the solidity of the nation’s institutions.

Mr. Atta Mills was born on July 21, 1944, in Tarkwa in western Ghana. He earned a law degree from the University of Ghana in 1967 and a doctorate from the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London. He was also a Fulbright scholar at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California

Mr. Atta Mills wrote extensively on taxation, and later was commissioner of internal revenue. A laid-back former law professor, he became the protégé of Jerry Rawlings — a fiery political figure who was his opposite.

“The Prof”, as Atta Mills was known, taught law for 25 years. He lost elections in 2000 and 2004 before winning in 2008.

“He’s been a calming and stabilizing influence,” Mr. Alence said. — New York Times News Service

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