The sad news came to me as a rude shock when I first read about it online last week. That President John Atta-Mills of Ghana was dead! The demise announced officially by the Ghanaian presidency utterly reminded us about our mortal status in this life; the grim reaper never respected any social, political or economic status. We are therefore equal before it and when it strikes sorrowfully without any hint or prior notice whatsoever melancholy is the word. The ultimate leveller is remorseless and when one's time comes nothing can save anyone from its cold attack!
The late President Atta-Mills suddenly took ill, according to reports, and died moments later in a military hospital in Accra. According to some reports he must have died of "heart attack" while others linked his death to "throat cancer". But one thing is sure here: Atta-Mills had been having a running battle with ill-health which had led him to visit the United States on medical check-up on more than one occasion. Like the late Nigerian President Musa Yar'Adua Atta-Mills was once rumoured to have died while abroad receiving treatment! When he was sworn in he was alleged to have been suffering from sinusite and had gone to South Africa to take care of that.
The solemn democratic lessons from Ghana for Nigeria are many in this period of grief in Kwame Nkrumah's country. One: the news of the ex-President's passing was received across Ghana with genuine shock and grief; people wept openly on the streets as if their relative was the one that died. They remembered Atta-Mills for his modesty, patriotism and compassion for the poor. That shows that when a good president dies his subjects mourn him with out-pouring of affection. Two: Vice-president John Dramani Mahama, an academic, was swiftly sworn in by the Chief Justice as new President in a dignified ceremony that bore the hallmark of cardinal respect for constitutional immutable sacrosanctity. Three: no military movement and intimidation from any quarters. The system was allowed to function majestically without any iota of military grandstanding or hubris.
The late President John Evans Atta-Mills remained in life a man of good breeding and impeccable credentials even though his years in office could not be qualified as one characterised by stellar performance due mainly to ill-health. He came into the top job with solid political experience and moral capital having served under Jerry Rawlings as Vice President and after having tried his presidential luck for three failed occasions -- until he met up with the Nigerian high-profile Prophet TB Joshua who predicted his victory after multiple run-offs -- something that came to pass! Ghana is, of course, blessed with good leaders.
The openness in Atta-Mills death as displayed by the swift Ghanaian presidency announcement of his demise brought a lot of relief to the democratic system in Ghana and positioned it as one in steady progress with strong institutions. When one compares that to the Yar'Adua health saga in Nigeria one cannot but lament the Nigerian continuing political quagmire. The smooth swearing-in of the Vice President (John Dramani Mahama) as President in accordance with the constitutional provision made headlines across the world. Remember Kofi Annan, former UN Secretary-General hails from Ghana like our own Emeka Anyaoku of Commonwealth.
It would be recalled that the first African black country the then newly-elected US President Barack Obama visited with his family was Ghana. It was in Accra that the charismatic intellectually-grounded son of a Kenyan immigrant declared that Africa did not need strongmen but strong institutions of democracy. Obama's visit to Ghana was a testament of the quality of the Ghanaian democracy and that re-inforced the status of a deepening democracy in the eyes of the world.
Before Atta-Mills took a medical leave of absence he reportedly sent an official letter to the National Assembly intimating them of his absence and empowering his Vice to act on his behalf. The late Yar'Adua never did that or was too weak to do that before he went permanently silent! Soon after the late Yar'Adua was buried it was reported in some media outlets back home that he had written the official letter of leave of absence but one northern official charged with delivering same to the National Assembly confiscated it!
Just compare the simple way and manner things post-Atta-Mills were organized in Ghana with the Yar'Adua mysterious sickness and even more mysterious death and you would conclude that Nigeria is indeed a mysterious country of mysterious people! Hajia Turai Yar'Adua and the northern cabal backing her used the military to intimidate everybody inquiring about the state of health of Yar'Adua even going to the extent of staging a daring midnight 'smuggling' of his clinically-dead body into Abuja! The VP then and now President Goodluck Jonathan was kept in the dark! And when the Katsina man eventually died officially a subtle power tussle ensued which eventually led the Senate to intervene by invoking the so-called "Doctrine of Necessity" to empower Jonathan with presidential powers.
While Hajia Turai Yar'Adua could be excused for her ignorance and over-bearing attitude stemming mainly from lack of sound education nothing could have justified her apparent attempt to confiscate state power and apparatus during her late husband's health troubles and after his demise. During the health challenge experienced by the late Ghanaian president he handled the matter with dignity informing his country men and women of his condition at every step. And when he died his bereaved wife was nowhere to be seen flexing some political muscles or trying to hold a nation hostage but was somewhere quietly mourning her husband!
Between the late Presidents Atta-Mills and Yar'Adua there is something they shared in common even in death: they were both suffering from a debilitating ailment before mounting the throne as Head of state. They both died in office too! But the comparison ends here and there. Whilst Atta-Mills ran an open government in consonance with the democratic tradition Yar'Adua oversaw a government with many secrets; remember when the press leaked a memo in Aso Rock and the real Yar'Adua emerged directing everyone working in the Villa to undergo an oath-taking ritual that forbade anyone from divulging any information from the Villa?
Between Aso Rock and Osu Castle there seems to be a mystique surrounding their very existence. While Yar'Adua had died officially in the Villa Atta-Mills died in office even though he was not living and working from the Castle. Before IBB re-located in a jiffy from Dodan Barracks in Lagos to Aso Rock he was said to be mortally horrified by the psychological effects of the Gideon Orkar coup to the extent that little arrangement was made to fix everything necessary inside the Villa. The retired Army General now living in obscene opulence in his Minna Hill-top Mansion was said to have 'sacrificed' cows and other animals burying them alive inside the Villa in order to pacify his god(s)!
After the 'Maradona' 'escaped' from the Villa after igniting the June 12 flame that nearly consumed him and the nation the illegitimate Interim National Government headed by Ernest Shonekan he hurriedly put in place was soon deposed by the late hated demented dictator from Kano Gen. Sani Abacha. He simply turned Aso Rock into his private house by inviting seasoned marabouts from neighbouring countries to come in and take residence so that they could provide security for him and his dictatorship! Cruel death (courtesy of imported Indian prostitutes) however over-powered the marabouts by snatching their brutal principal away!
Sani Abacha the dark-goggled one never thought that any force could take him away so soon as he digged in killing opponents and torturing others and jailing them indiscriminately. Opposition figures and social critics fled for dear lives in order to escape the transformation of an incontinent dictator into a schizophrenic using the instruments of power to do evil. Perhaps it may not be out of place to say here that this commentator was among those who 'Andrewed' away in droves out of Nigeria!
While Osu Castle in Accra, the official presidential palace, is a modest edifice last occupied by ex-President Jerry John Rawlings Aso Rock Villa in Abuja (where Gen. Ibrahim Babangida ran to for comfort and security after a failed but audacious coup d'etat) remains an impregnable fortress, an edifice once described by the former BBC Correspondent in Lagos, Sola Odunfa, as "breathtaking"! Aso Rock seems to be a place of power myth where dictators and hitherto 'shoe-less' leaders reside and work in all imperial majesty. It 'transforms' leaders and rulers turning them into glorified 'prisoners' suffering from what one may call here a 'disconnect syndrome', that is, a 'disease' that manifests itself when a leader disconnects with reality as a result of a power bug.
Ever since the strongman, Jerry Rawlings, left Osu Castle no successor has had the courage to move into the palace for reasons best known to them (superstition or whatever). Before Rawlings left graciously after losing the presidential election as incumbent to former President John Kuffour he was reportedly said to have used a sharp object to tear up one of his fingers from where blood sprinkled upon an opened page of the constitution of Ghana placed before him on a table! Rawlings might be occultic or fetish but we recognise his great effort to rid Ghana of corrupt Generals and politicians. Ex-President Kuffour, a dark-complexioned big man of moderate taste, worked and lived in his private Villa for the eight years he presided over the Ghanaian affairs. The late Atta-Mills followed in that tradition.
Former dictator turned President Jerry Rawlings and his wife's factor may very well play itself out in the political power calculus in the ruling NDC party. Mr Atta-Mills had just been nominated by the National Democratic Congress to stand for a second term after subjecting himself to a bruising primaries. But his nomination had illustrated a split within the ruling party with Nana Agyemang-Rawlings (who contested the primary against him and lost) leading a vociferous faction critical of Atta-Mills' management of power.
The presidential poll coming up in December in Ghana will be very hotly contested between the ruling party and the opposition led by the fire-brand Nana Akufo-Addo who lost narrowly to Atta-Mills in the last presidential contest. If Addo squares off against the incumbent interim President who has been made the national leader of Rawlings' NDC party then it will be an explosive event given the two men's intellectual capacity and political pedigree. If, on the other hand, Rawlings manipulates things and allows his wife to contest against the opposition then it will be no less interesting given that Ghana may join, in the event of the NDC candidate prevailing, the league of African countries being commanded by high-profile women: Liberia (Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf) and Malawi (Joyce Banda).
Fare thee well John Evans Atta-Mills! May your gentle soul be accepted by the Host of Heaven!! And may your kind (in spirit, flesh and faculty) visit my giant of a country with the feet of clay!!!