The death on July 24 of President John Atta Mills has been a shock to the Ghanaian people but the orderly nature of the transition in which Vice-President John Dramani Mahama was almost immediately sworn in as his successor is testimony to Mills’s mighty contribution to the public life of his country. Between 1997 and 2001, Mills was Vice-President to the former military dictator Jerry Rawlings, who had seized power in 1979 and again in 1984 but was later elected to the presidency. Before entering politics, Mills read law at the University of Ghana and took a degree from the London School of Economics as well as a doctorate from the School of Oriental and African Studies; his subsequent academic career led to his being called “the Prof.” In political terms, Mills was a moderate social democrat who strengthened public institutions, and won plaudits for agreeing to a primary election within the ruling National Democratic Congress (NDC). After a campaign in which his opponent, Nana Konadu Agyemang-Rawlings, the wife of Mr. Rawlings, severely criticised him, he narrowly won the NDC nomination for the presidential election.
It is almost certain that the election will proceed as scheduled in December, but several problems could arise. The Agyemang-Rawlings faction may seek a fresh party primary; that would divide the NDC and could cost it the presidency, as Mills won the 2008-9 election by a margin of less than one per cent over Nana Akufo-Addo of the National Patriotic Party. Secondly, despite the fact that Ghana’s biggest export earners, cocoa and gold, continue to command high prices and have enabled Accra to weather the world economic crash better than many others, the discovery of oil in 2007 has raised the political stakes. Expectations of increased prosperity from the estimated billion-barrel offshore Jubilee field are clear, and the late President had promised that oil revenues would be used responsibly. Those in elected office can, however, expect to face conflicting pressures over how they dispense such monies, and although Ghana’s public institutions are relatively less corrupt than many others in the developing world, there will be concomitant temptations. In sum, President Mills’s untimely death both confirms the value of his efforts for his country and could well test Ghana’s political institutions in the near future.