John Atta Mills (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)
ACCRA, Ghana (AP) - John Atta Mills, who was elected president in the closest vote in Ghana's history and then led the West African country amid newfound oil wealth, died Tuesday just months before the end of his first term. He was 68.
Ghanaian state-run television stations GTV and TV3 broke into regular programming to announce the president's death. Chief of Staff John Henry Martey Newman told the nation that Atta Mills had died Tuesday afternoon at the 37th Military Hospital in Accra but gave no details about the cause of his death.
Information Minister Fritz Baffour later confirmed that Atta Mills had died but also declined to comment further.
According to state-run media, Ghana's parliament was to hold an emergency meeting immediately.
The president celebrated his 68th birthday Saturday. Atta Mills served as president as Ghana began grappling with how to deal with its newfound oil wealth from offshore fields discovered in the last five years. The country, whose economy has been fueled by gold, cocoa and timber exports in the past, hopes to put the oil money to good use, mindful of how nearby Nigeria suffered through military dictatorships and widespread corruption over its oil wealth.
Atta Mills traveled to the United States in March and met for a meeting with U.S. President Barack Obama at the White House. He also traveled to the U.S. in April as well, as rumors about his health began to circulate Ghana.
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 offici al said that no one suspected that he was gravely ill. "Yes, his death is a surprise - it's six months before the election, and he was a candidate."
Opposition newspapers had recently reported that he was not well enough to run for a second term.
Still, the sudden news of his death came as a surprise. Louis Agbo, a university student in Accra, said he saw the television stations break in to announce Atta Mills' death and 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."
Atta Mills was elected in a 2008 runoff vote - his third presidential bid - and was to run for a second term in December. He campaigned on a platform of change, arguing that the western African 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 said. "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 Obama in an effort to emphasize that the Ghanaian stood for change.
He 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, California.
Ghana, the first African nation to declare independence, has been held up as a model of democracy on a continent where violence often accompanies elections.
FRANCIS KOKUTSE, Associated Press
Larson reported from Dakar, Senegal. Associated Press writers Sammy Ajei and Jon Gambrell in Lagos, Nigeria; Rukmini Callimachi in Dakar, Senegal; and Laura Burke in Cape Coast, Ghana contributed to this report.
Copyright © 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.