Obituary: Ghana's President John Atta Mills

Image source, AFP
Image caption,
John Atta Mills is the first Ghanaian head of state to die in office

Ghana's President John Atta Mills, who has died at the age of 68, was known to his supporters as "The Prof" - a reference to his long academic career.

Born on 21 July 1944 at Tarkwa in western Ghana, Mr Atta Mills graduated in law at the University of Ghana in 1967 before studying further at the London School of Economics and receiving a PhD from the School of Oriental and African Studies.

Mr Atta Mills later branched out into politics, becoming president after beating Nana Akufo-Addo in the 2008 elections.

It was third time lucky for Mr Atta Mills - the flagbearer of the National Democratic Congress (NDC) party - in his campaign to become president.

Keen hockey player

He lost twice before - in the 2000 and 2004 elections, and had been ridiculed by the opposition as a lackey of former Ghanaian military ruler Jerry Rawlings.

Mr Atta Mills served as vice-president to Mr Rawlings between 1997 and January 2001 and had previously created a stir by saying that if elected, he would consult with the former president.

But in 2008 he distanced himself from Mr Rawlings, even drawing criticism from his former boss for being too gentle with their party's bitter rivals in the New Patriotic Party (NPP).

Mr Atta Mills described himself as a social democrat who leaned broadly on independence leader Kwame Nkrumah's idea of social welfare.

But he pitched a more inclusive and less polarising political platform than both Mr Nkrumah and Mr Rawlings.

Once in power he started an austerity programme and presided over the country's first commercial oil production, promising that - unlike some African countries - his government would spend the newfound oil revenue responsibly.

His presidency was marked by persistent rumours that he was severely ill and had died, prompting him to once remark that reports of his death were "exaggerated".

Mr Atta Mills went to the US in June to receive medical treatment.

He returned to Ghana - and continued attending official functions. However, he rarely spoke in public, fuelling speculation that he suffered from throat cancer.

He had planned to run for a second presidential term in elections due in December, saying: "We will come back; we will have the second term."

"On a personal level his moderation and integrity stood out," Liberia's President Johnson-Sirleaf told the BBC's Focus on Africa programme following his death, adding that Mr Atta Mills had played a strong role at the regional meetings they both attended.

Analysts say will be remembered for the needling he had to endure from within his own party, in particular from Mr Rawlings.

But he was a diplomat and peacemaker and was never one to make disparaging comments in public - in contrast to his former boss.

The former law lecturer, who specialised in taxation, was reserved but known for his good sense of humour.

Mr Atta Mills was a keen hockey player, at one time a member of the national team, and also enjoyed swimming.

He leaves his wife Ernestina Naadu Mills, a trained marriage counsellor, and their son Sam Kofi Atta Mills.

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