Obituary: Ghana’s John Atta Mills

Former law professor-turned-president, credited for overseeing large oil production in Ghana, has died at 68.

Mills' campaign slogan "A Better Man for a Better Ghana" got him into the presidency in January 2009 [EPA]

John Atta Mills, who was elected president in the closest vote in Ghana’s history and then led the West African country amid newfound oil wealth, died on July 24 with only a few months before the end of his first term. He was 68 years old.

The West African nation’s presidential office said he died hours after falling ill at a hospital in the capital Accra, but did not provide a cause.

Mills, elected into the presidency in January 2009, after losing twice previously to former president John Kufuor – in 2000 and again in 2004 – is credited for overseeing the large oil production since December 2010. 

He narrowly won the vote in 2008 with a less than one per cent margin against a candidate from the party of incumbent John Kufuor, widely respected for having stepped down following his two terms in office.

In July 2011, Mills was nominated to be the ruling National Democratic Congress party’s presidential candidate for December 2012 elections. 

The primary represented the first time in the country’s history that a sitting president competed for his own party’s nomination

‘Desire to serve’

Family members previously said that Mills, a former vice-president to the charismatic ex-leader Jerry Rawlings, grew up with a “desire to serve others, especially the under-privileged”.

The soft-spoken Mills was finally elected under the slogan “A Better Man for a Better Ghana,” campaigning on the platform of change, arguing that the western African country’s growth had not been felt in people’s wallets.

“People are complaining. They’re saying that their standard of living has deteriorated these past eight years,” he said.

“So if Ghana is a model of growth, it’s not translating into something people can feel.”

Atta Mills even put up campaign posters of himself standing next to a cutout of US President Barack Obama in an effort to emphasise that the Ghanaian stood for change, the catchword in Obama’s 2008 campaign.  

Ghana, whose economy has been fuelled by gold, cocoa and timber exports in the past, hopes to put the oil money to good use, mindful of how nearby Nigeria suffered through military dictatorships and widespread corruption over its
oil wealth. 

Mills served as president just as Ghana began grappling with how to deal with its newfound oil wealth from offshore fields discovered in the last five years. 

He travelled to the United States in March and met with Obama at the White House, returning to the same country in April as rumors about his ill health began to circulate Ghana.

Opposition newspapers had recently reported that he was not well enough to run for a second term.

Still, the sudden news of his death came as a surprise.


Mills spent much of his career teaching at the University of Ghana.

He earned a doctorate from London’s School of Oriental and African Studies before becoming a Fulbright scholar at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California. 

Mills’ first formal teaching assignment was as a lecturer at the Faculty of Law at the University of Ghana, Legon, spending almost 25 years as an educator. He had more than a dozen publications to his credit, many of them on

Mills rose to prominence in 1997 when Rawlings named him vice president – a position he held until the former coup leader-turned-elected president made way for Kufuor after the 2000 elections.

Some analysts said that his political career was hampered by the fact that he was seen as too close to former president Jerry Rawlings.

Representing the National Democratic Congress, Mills, popularly referred to as “The Prof”, a reference to his professorship, had presented himself as transparent, humble and willing to learn from his mistakes.

A football fanatic like so many other Ghanaians, he was also an avid hockey player and was said to have swam almost daily for about two hours.

He had served on the board of one of Ghana’s top football clubs, Hearts of Oak, and also supported English Premier League side Manchester United.

Mills was married and had a son who is now in his 20s. According to the constitution, Vice-President John Dramani Mahama is to take over as interim leader and he was to address the nation shortly.

Source: News Agencies