Jerry Rawlings, who seized control of Ghana twice in military coups before becoming the country’s democratically-elected president, has died at the age of 73, his party said in a statement Thursday.
Rawlings’ takeovers in 1979 and 1981 were marked by authoritarian rule and the executions of senior military officers, including General Frederick Akuffo, whom he overthrew in the first coup.
But Rawlings went on to oversee Ghana’s transition to multi-party democracy, winning election in 1992 and 1996 before stepping down in 2001.
“A great tree has fallen, and Ghana is poorer for this loss,” said the current president, Nana Akufo-Addo, in a statement.
National flags will fly at half mast for a week from Friday across the west African country, he added. The president and vice president, who are members of the ruling New Patriotic Party (NPP), will suspend their political campaigns for the upcoming general election on December 7 for the same period of time.
Former president John Mahama, who is running again in this year’s presidential campaign for the National Democratic Congress (NDC) – the party Rawlings founded – will also suspend his six-day campaign tour of the Ashanti region with immediate effect, his campaign spokesperson said in a statement.
“Africa has lost a stalwart of Pan-Africanism and a charismatic continental statesman,” said the chairperson of the African Union Commission, Moussa Faki Mahamat, in a tweet on Thursday.
Rawlings first came to power in the 1979 coup when he was an air force lieutenant. He transferred power to civilian rule soon after but then led another coup two years later, decrying government corruption and weak leadership.
From 1981 to 1993, he ruled as chairman of a joint military-civilian government. In 1992 he was elected president under a new constitution, taking up that office the following year.
As president, he liberalized Ghana’s economy, encouraging investment in the oil and gold sectors.
In 2001, he handed over power to John Kufour of the opposition party who had defeated Rawlings’ vice president in the previous year’s election.
After stepping down, Rawlings remained a power broker in Ghanaian politics while serving in various international diplomatic posts, including as the African Union’s representative in Somalia.