Ghana’s reputation as one of the most mature democracies in West Africa was further solidified on Tuesday, when the vice president took over only hours after the 68-year-old president died five months before finishing his first term.
New Ghanian President John Mahama’s swift inauguration underscored the nation’s stability in a part of the world where the deaths of other leaders have sparked coups.
“We are deeply distraught, devastated as a country,” Mahama said after his swearing-in ceremony, where he raised the golden staff of office above his head.
Ghanaian state-run television stations GTV and TV3 broke into their regular programming to announce the death of president John Atta Mills on Tuesday afternoon. Government officials did not release the cause of his death, which came three days after his 68th birthday.
“President Mills will be remembered for his statesmanship and years of dedicated service to his country,” according to a statement from UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s spokesman.
“At this time of national mourning, the secretary-general renews the commitment of the United Nations to work alongside the government and the people of Ghana in support of their efforts to consolidate the country’s democratic and development achievements,” the spokesman said.
Rumors had swirled about Atta Mills’ health in recent months after he made several trips to the US, and opposition newspapers had reported he was not well enough to run for a second term.
Some radio stations even announced that he was dead during one of his recent trips to the States. When Atta Mills returned to Ghana, he jogged at the airport and blasted those who had falsely reported his death.
On the streets of Cape Coast, people held radios to their ears on the street, listening to the funeral hymns playing on FM stations and waiting for more information about the president’s unexpected death.
“His speeches were full of a spirit of love and peace,” said Efua Mensima, 45. “He was soft-spoken. I wept when I heard of his death.”
In a predominantly Ghanaian section of Ivory Coast’s commercial capital, a group of 10 men tried to organize a bus to take them to Ghana for the president’s funeral.
“The Ghanaian people were happy with this president and his program for the development of the country,” said Nour Ousmane Aladji, 27, a taxi driver who moved to Abidjan in 2000.
Chris Fomunyoh, the senior director for Africa for the Washington-based National Democratic Institute for International Affairs, said that Ghana’s democracy could weather the death of a president.