Ghanaian state-run television stations broke into their regular programming to announce the president’s death, which came three days after his 68th birthday.
Chief of Staff John Henry Martey Newman told the nation that Atta Mills had died July 24 at the 37th Military Hospital in Accra but gave no details about the cause.
“It is with a heavy heart and deep sorrow that we announce the sudden and untimely death of the president of the Republic of Ghana,” Newman said.
Information Minister Fritz Baffour later confirmed that Atta Mills had died but also declined to comment further.
Louis Agbo, a university student in Accra, said the television stations interrupted regular programming to announce Atta Mills’ death and he was shocked by the news.
“I could not even shout or cry,” Agbo said. “I rushed outside and saw people crying and wailing on the street.”
The nation stood by for a speech by Vice President John Mahama, who will become president under the nation’s laws.
Atta Mills was elected in a 2008 runoff vote — his third presidential bid — after campaigning on a platform of change, arguing that the 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 told The Associated Press in 2008. “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 U.S. President Barack Obama in an effort to emphasize that he too stood for change.
Atta Mills had traveled to the United States in March where he met with Obama. The Ghanaian leader also traveled to the U.S. in April as well, as rumors about his health began to circulate Ghana. Opposition newspapers had recently reported that he was not well enough to run for a second term.
A government official in neighboring Ivory Coast said that he saw Atta Mills around six months ago in Ethiopia during an African Union meeting.
“We are hearing that he died of cancer of the throat. I saw him in Addis Ababa — not this meeting, but the one maybe six months ago,” said the official, who requested anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the press. “He was walking slowly. I am surprised to learn that he is only 68. He looked much older.”
Still, the official said no one suspected he was gravely ill. “Yes, his death is a surprise — it’s six months before the election, and he was a candidate.”
Atta Mills won the 2008 second round ballot capturing a razor-thin victory with 50.23 percent of the vote — or 4,521,032 ballots. His opponent, Nana Akufo-Addo, garnered 49.77 percent — or 4,480,446 votes.
Atta Mills also served as vice president under Jerry Rawlings, a coup leader who was later elected president by popular vote and surprised the world by stepping down after losing the 2000 election.
Atta 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, Calif.
Photo: John Atta Mills