Ghana after John Atta Mills
July 25, 2012
The president of Ghana, John Atta Mills, has died at the age of 68. Although few details have been released about his death, there had been speculation about his deteriorating health for some time, and he had reportedly visited the United States for medical treatment in April. President Atta Mills was approaching the end of his first term in office, having been elected in 2008. Vice President John Dramani Mahama has assumed the presidency until the next elections, scheduled for December. Ghana is a major cocoa and gold producer, a new oil producer, and a long-standing ally of the United States.
In a statement, President Obama spoke warmly of his visit to Ghana in 2009, his first and only trip to Africa since taking office. He noted that President Atta Mills had “tirelessly worked to improve the lives of the Ghanaian people” and had “helped promote economic growth in the midst of challenging global circumstances and strengthened Ghana’s strong tradition of democracy.”
Q1: Who was John Atta Mills?
A1: President Atta Mills was a law professor turned politician who enjoyed a long career in public life. He first gained prominence in 1996, becoming vice president during the second term of Jerry Rawlings, a former coup leader who steered Ghana to multiparty democracy. Atta Mills launched his own bid for the presidency after Rawlings stepped down in 2000. He was beaten twice before leading the National Democratic Congress (NDC) to victory in 2008 in the closest vote in Ghana’s history. Atta Mills gained a razor-thin majority of just 40,000 votes in a run-off against Nana Akufo-Addo of the New Patriotic Party (NPP). Since taking office, President Atta Mills had gained plaudits for his personal integrity and for his stewardship of Ghana’s transition into a middle-income economy, due in large part to the start of oil production at the end of 2010. In 2011, Ghana’s GDP grew by more than 14 percent, making it one of the fastest-growing economies in the world.
Q2: What are the likely implications for Ghana’s forthcoming election?
A2: President Atta Mills’ death comes at a delicate time, four months out from a critical election in which he had intended to seek a second term. Ghana has made steady political progress since multiparty democracy was installed in 1992, having experienced two peaceful transfers of power. But the 2012 elections are expected to pose a strong test of its democratic credentials. The two leading parties remain evenly matched, as they were in 2008, but the stakes are much higher this time round.
The winning party knows it will get to enjoy the best years of Ghana’s oil wealth. Given the importance of the patronage system in Ghanaian politics, an oil-backed revenue stream will offer the next incumbent unprecedented opportunities to break apart the two-party system and secure a decisive advantage for his party. The high-stakes nature of this year’s contest has already led to heightened tensions, with acrimonious debate, mud-slinging, and allegations of corruption an early feature of the campaigning.
Q3: What will be the main challenges for Ghana’s next leader?
A3: According to Ghana’s constitution, Vice President John Dramani Mahama will serve out the rest of his predecessor’s term. His first task will be to win a tough election battle in which he will most likely be the NDP candidate. Whoever takes office in 2013 will face the challenge of meeting the heightened expectations of Ghanaian citizens for material improvements to their daily lives. Despite phenomenal growth in 2011, observers point to the risk of rapid inflation and the challenge of creating jobs for the country’s burgeoning youth population. Sound economic management will be required to ensure that Ghana’s oil wealth is harnessed in a transparent, accountable way that delivers sustainable, broad-based growth. This will not be an easy task, if the track record of other resource-rich African nations is anything to go by. Corruption is another big challenge. Ghana’s institutions are fairly robust, but are being eroded by the influence of oil money and the growing threat of international drug trafficking through West Africa.
Q4: What are the implications for relations with the United States?
A4: The United States enjoys excellent relations with Ghana, and the partnership has been robust throughout the tenure of NDC and NPP governments. The tenor of relations is therefore unlikely to be affected by the untimely demise of President Atta Mills, although the United States will be loath to see Ghana’s political and economic progress undermined by short-term instability. December’s elections will therefore assume even greater importance than before. Ghana is frequently cited as one of Africa’s success stories. It is peaceful and democratic, and its economy is flourishing. It has a vibrant civil society and a free press. Its military is professional, and its troops have played a much-appreciated role in peacekeeping operations throughout the continent and around the world. Ghana’s good performance has been recognized by the United States, which has invested significantly in the country’s continued success. Ghana was chosen as the location for President Obama’s only official trip to Africa; his 2009 visit was a tribute to Ghana’s record of good governance. It recently completed a $547 million economic development compact with the Millennium Challenge Corporation and has been deemed eligible for a second grant.
Richard Downie is a fellow and deputy director of the Africa Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C.
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© 2012 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.