The Unprecedented President Mills
By Kofi Yeboah
The death of Professor John Evans Fiifi Atta Mills has been described as unprecedented in the history of Ghana because no President of Ghana had ever died in office, but a scan through his life indicates it is full of unprecedented events.
From his schooling through his emergence on the political scene in 1996 and short-lived three-and-half-year tenure as president to his death, which occurred three days after his 68th birthday, everything about Professor Mills seemed to be so unprecedented.
As a scholar, obtaining a PhD degree in law at a young age of 27 was an exceptional academic achievement in his generation.
In public life, his contribution to legal education as a tax law professor and reforming the country’s tax regime, particularly the introduction of the Value Added Tax (VAT) were profoundly enormous.
The introduction of the VAT in March 1995 was characterised by a wave of unprecedented street protests, compelling the withdrawal of the tax law two months later.
However, after its re-introduction in 1998, the VAT has, today, become the bedrock of national revenue mobilisation and development, raking in substantial revenue into the national kitty and serving as a fountain from which the country’s education and health sectors draw financial oxygen for survival.
It is quite intriguing the way Ghana’s presidents under the First and Third Republics, Dr Kwame Nkrumah and Dr Hilla Limann, respectively, were plugged from foreign lands into local political limelight, but the manner in which Professor Mills was scooped from political obscurity inland to become a very formidable, astute and iconic figure in contemporary Ghanaian politics was rather unprecedented.
An unassuming character, Professor Mills was not even a backline politician; in fact, he did not feature in the political radar at all, but his fast and high rise on the political ladder, from his nomination as the running mate of ex-president Rawlings for the National Democratic Congress (NDC) ticket for the 1996 general election to his becoming the Vice President and, subsequently, President of the Republic of Ghana, was so amazing.
Just after four years of good, selfless stewardship as vice president, he won the admiration of ex-President Rawlings for an endorsement as heir-apparent to bear the NDC flag in the 2000 election.
Many political watchers might have been confounded by that endorsement and, indeed, some NDC faithful were not enthused by it, and they demonstrated their displeasure with a breakaway from the party.
There had not been any political leader in the county whose singular factor, whether directly and indirectly, had caused major breakaways n the party, and yet gone ahead to win a presidential election in due course.
Professor Mills’ assumption of the presidency after winning the 2008 polls was also unprecedented, having become the first person to ever occupy the two highest positions of the land – Vice President and President.
That achievement also broke a certain pattern of folks from the Central Region ending up only as vice president of Ghana, having followed in the footsteps of the late Dr J. W. S. de-Graft Johnson who was the vice president in the Limann administration under the Third Republic and the late Kow Nkensen Arkaah, who was the vice president in the first tenure of ex-President Rawlings administration under the Fourth Republic.
The election that brought Professor Mills to power was itself very unprecedented in the country’s political history, winning with the slightest of margins ever recorded in a presidential poll in Ghana. That decider came through a third-round of voting, which was also another piece of history.
At the time Professor Mills assumed office, Ghana had two ex-presidents (J. J. Rawlings and J. A. Kufuor), both residing in the country.
That is unprecedented in the country’s political history.
But whereas the two ex-presidents had it ‘cool chop’ at the primaries of their respective parties as they were overwhelmingly endorsed as flag bearer to seek a second mandate of the Ghanaian electorate, Professor Mills made history as the first sitting president to have been challenged at a party primary to truncate that convention.
That challenge, which came from a very formidable opposition in the wife of the founder of the NDC, Nana Konadu Agyeman-Rawlings, presented another instance of unprecedented event in the life of Professor Mills as he become the first candidate of a major political party to have won a party primary with about 97 per cent of votes.
When the first ever elected black American President Barrack Obama decided to visit Africa for the first time as president, he chose Ghana above Kenya, his fatherland, and that historic visit on July 11, 2009 was during the presidency of Professor Mills.
Although his tenure as president was short-lived due to the cruelty of death, he nevertheless made some unprecedented achievements worth mentioning and celebrating.
During his tenure, Ghana became a lower middle income country, recorded the lowest inflation in many decades and chalked up many other achievements listed in the NDC’s Green Book as unprecedented.
Many people might not be excited about the unprecedented macroeconomic achievements by the Mills administration because, as the cliché goes, the figures do not reflect in the pocket.
But be that as it may, the fact of the matter (not necessarily the reality) is that the figures reflect in the economic books and that constitutes the benchmark for any assessment, even by the international community.
The qualities of humility, modesty, honesty, simplicity, tolerance, endurance, respectfulness and peace-mindedness which Professor Mills brought to the presidency were unmatched by any past president in the country’s history.
In the face of extreme criticism, provocation, mockery, ridicule and insult, sometimes from his own party members, Professor Mills endured them all and never returned fire for fire, in spite of the enormous powers he wielded as President of the Republic of Ghana.
Many negative insinuations such as ‘Yutong bus driver’ and ‘Atta mortuary man’ were cast at him, while songs were even composed to make jest of him. Sometimes, his mockers even sat on the same dais with him.
But in those instances, no arrests were made or hair shoved or any persons harassed in his name for the offence of denigrating his person.
Interestingly, you would find him smile at such jests and sometimes he even joined his mockers in the jest. What a tolerant man he was!
Checking the records of past presidents of Ghana (even military leaders), it is obvious that these character traits of Professor Mills are very rare and unprecedented.
The death of Professor Mills has sparked a wave of significant historic events in the country. It invoked Article 60 (6) of the 1992 Constitution which prompted an emergency sitting of Parliament to swear in Vice President John Mahama as new President of the Republic of Ghana, all within a matter of eight hours of the former president’s death.
The hierarchy of the ruling NDC is now at its wits end, trying to unravel some delicate issues such as finding a nominee for the vice presidency, as well as a flag bearer and running mate for the December general election, which is barely four months away.
Indeed, the death of Professor Mills and the complicated issues it has generated will be a major subject of political science and legal education in the country henceforth.
Across the entire country, Ghanaians have been shattered by the death of the former president as a result of which many planned activities, both high and low key, have been cancelled.
Certainly, there is no time, at least in recent memory, that Ghana has been more united in grief than this moment.
Even circumstances surrounding his death are quite astonishing. Who ever thought that after ex-president Rawlings had told the story of ‘Atta the mortuary man’ who worked at the 37 Military Hospital in Accra, Atta the President would die and become a ‘mortuary man’ at the 37 Military Hospital?
As a friend indicated, the sum of the day Professor Mills died, the month he died and the name of the hospital where he died, is equal to his age. That is, 24 + 7 + 37 = 68.
That was the mystery surrounding our unprecedented President as he journeys home into the warm embrace of his Maker.