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Ghana's President John Atta Mills Dead at 68

Ghana's President John Evans Atta Mills.
Ghana's President John Evans Atta Mills.

DAKAR — Ghana's president, John Atta Mills, died Tuesday at a military hospital in Accra shortly after falling ill. Officials did not give a cause of death. Vice President John Dramani Mahama was sworn in to finish Mills's term.

President John Atta Mills died five months short of finishing his first term in office and only days after celebrating his 68th birthday. He was set to run for a second term in elections planned for December 7. His death has taken the nation by surprise.

Shopkeeper Teresa Ayerakwo closed her shop early on Tuesday. "In fact, today I am sad. I won't eat today. Never. My husband is dead, but today's death is very, very paining for me. He is a Christian. He was nice to everybody, how he speak, he's very gentle, you see, and he care for us. I don't think I can vote again. Never. Very painful for me," she said.

Mills was elected president in 2009, following a close runoff election that was praised by observers as a free, fair and peaceful transition of power. It was his third and only successful bid for the presidency.

The Ghanaian leader reiterated his commitment to political stability during a visit with U.S. President Barack Obama at the White House in March.

"We have an election this year, but we are going to ensure there is peace before, during and after. When there is no peace, it is not the leaders who suffer, it is the ordinary people who have elected us into office. So we have a big challenge, and we know that some of our friends in Africa are looking up to us, and we dare not fail them," he said.

Watch VOA's Shaka Ssali's '09 interview with President Mills

During the past two years, Mills presided over one of the fastest growing economies in the world. But he faced some criticism that Ghana's economic boom has yet to include average citizens who face high rates of unemployment and poverty.

Supporters like Efua Mensima say they are sad Mills will not be able to finish what he started.

"I miss him, I miss him. I miss him personally and I miss his visions for Ghana. I miss what he lived for, for everybody to create an enabling environment; for everybody to work, earn a living; for everybody to get free access to education, to health, to social activities like recreation and, well, for everybody to live and enjoy as a human," he said.

A distinguished law professor and taxation expert, Mills taught at the University of Ghana for more than 25 years.

He served in various financial posts in government before taking on the role of vice president from 1997 to 2000 under Ghana's military dictator and later elected president, J.J. Rawlings.

Mills was known to be a soft-spoken politician, a devout Christian and an avid hockey player.

Laura Burke contributed reporting from Cape Coast, Ghana.