Diary 25/07The death of President John Atta Mills hit the country like the proverbial ton of bricks, especially because he had celebrated his 68th birthday a few days before and had seemed to be in good health despite murmurings about his health. He appeared primed to lead the country for the rest of his term and had set out a robust programme towards that end. My initial feeling of grief gave way to fears that the President’s death could lead to some kind of destabilisation, but just seven hours after the sad report, I was able to tweet about my pride in Ghana and hope for the future.
What happened during the few hours between the announcement of the President’s passing and the swearing in of Mr. Mahama at Parliament assured Ghanaians that our grief would not be compounded by any untoward tragedy. That calm and peaceful cooperation among all stakeholders that led to the extra-smooth transition was a mark of respect for a man whose life was characterised by one word: kindness.
Professor John Evans Fiifi Atta Mills has often been described as humble and peaceful, and while both words are valid attributes of our fallen leader, I think such qualities emanate from his essential natural kindness rather than cultivated behavior. The late President gave of himself freely and without regard for the status of the person receiving his favour. It was this quality that enabled him to move in all circles with such comfort and confidence. The point here is that the late President had not cultivated humility and peace-lovingness as vote-winning devices; he was a natural when it came to opening his heart.
I first knew Dr. Mills, as he was in the early 1970s, when I entered the University of Ghana. Interestingly, I initially mistook him for the University Sports Coach and it took a couple of weeks before a law student friend told me that the man who was always wearing sports shorts with a towel draped around his shoulders and invariably holding a football was indeed a law lecturer. The reason he was always so sportily dressed was because he was a sportsman and also at the time, the President of the University Amalgamated Sports Club. Legon was then a small community, small enough for students and lecturers to have at least a passing acquaintance of one another such that by the time I joined his wife on the teaching staff at Aburi Girls Secondary School, Dr. Mills and I knew each other.
However, it was during his frequent visits to Aburi that we became friends to the extent that on some occasions, he would stop first at my flat before going on to see his wife Mrs. Ernestina Naadu Mills, who was then as now, a quietly spoken but very respectful and respected member of staff. Dr. Mills’ visit brought me some benefits such as the beer he paid for and the occasional jollof rice packed for me by Mrs. Mills to take home with me. But it was the humour-packed conversation that marked the joy of his visits.
I left Aburi and Ghana and did not meet Professor Mills again for many years, but my next meeting with him astonished me with its gift of care and friendship. It was during the 40th anniversary of the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa and I had gone to Addis Ababa to report the occasion for a London-based publication. This was in 1997 and Professor Mills was representing Ghana as Vice President. There were hundreds of official delegates, civil society groups, UN diplomats and journalists, so there was no reason why the Vice President of Ghana would notice a journalist going about his duties in the huge conference hall, even if he was an old friend.
After the first plenary session, the dignitaries filed into their cars to be whisked away for lunch somewhere special. As we say, I was “standing my somewhere” near the press entrance when the convoy of heads of state and their representatives started moving, each with their country’s flag flying on the front of the car. I noticed that one of the cars had veered off the convoy’s route and coming in my direction. I looked again and realised that the flag was the Ghana flag and my heart jumped. What could it mean? In no time, the smoked glass window was wound down and the Vice President of the Republic of Ghana was talking to me: “Gyan, na ɛre ye den wɔ aha?”; he wanted to know what on earth I was doing there. The convoy had to move so even before I could stammer my answer, he told me to meet him at the banquet being laid on that evening at the impressive Addis Sheraton Hotel.
The Sheraton Banquet Hall was packed with the usual suspects – presidents, vice presidents, ministers, diplomats, officials, journalists and the like. The South African trumpet maestro Hugh Masakela was belting out a popular tune and people were doing serious networking around the cavernous hall. I spotted the Vice President as soon as I entered because he was among a group of high-powered people who were standing in a reception line at the far end of the room. I decided to wait until it was convenient for me to go and greet Professor Mills, although I knew that at that sort of place, the chance would probably never come.
Then I realised that he was craning his neck as if looking for someone. I got a bit closer and when our eyes met, I realised he was looking for me! He beckoned me to come over to where he was standing. I went closer and realised that his immediate neighbours included the then UN boss Kofi Annan, a high Ghanaian government official Dr. Mrs. Mary Grant and the Prime Minister of Ethiopia Mr. Meles Zenawi. He introduced me to all of these dignitaries and cracked a joke about how I was giving the government a lot of “trouble” in London. The irony was that Vice President Atta Mills knew that I was not on the list of journalists likely to receive Christmas cards from his government so he was being his generous self with a fellow Ghanaian and a friend.
In the last few days, I have spoken with a number of people and heard some tributes about Professor Mills in the media, and realise that his kindness was no fake or fluke but a genuine genetic trait that was as close to him as his skin. The late President’s generosity extended to everyone he came into contact with and was the tool with which he battled the adversities that came his way.
It is too early to assess President Mills’ influence on this country’s historical path, but in the last few days, I have come to understand the President in a ways that eluded me when I had to evaluate him in the heat of the political battles that Ghana appears to live through permanently in the last ten years. I have been critical of the President because I expected him to be tougher in some circumstances. But now I realise that our late leader’s politics was not distinct from life as he led it. With him, what you saw was what you got. With his kindness came an honesty that does not belong to the political arena. Perhaps, his real gift to us are first lessons in another kind of politics. The only way to make sense of that is for this nation to pull together for a very kind man.
If only we will learn…
President Mills… Damirifa.