Jerry Rawlings, who seized control of Ghana twice in military coups before becoming the country’s democratically-elected president, died Thursday at the age of 73, a source at the presidency said.
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. Today, Ghana is considered one of west Africa’s most mature democracies and regularly sees power change hands between its two main parties.
Ghana’s president, Nana Akufo-Addo, said in a statement that Rawlings had died on Thursday morning at a hospital in Accra after a short illness. “A great tree has fallen and Ghana is poorer for this loss,” he said.
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.
John Mahama, the leader of the National Democratic Congress (NDC) party that Rawlings founded, said on Twitter that he had suspended campaigning for the 7 December presidential election. The election will pit Akufo-Addo against his main challenger, Mahama, a former president who lost to the incumbent in a 2016 election, and other candidates from smaller parties.
Rawlings remained a power broker in Ghanaian politics after stepping down, while serving in various international diplomatic posts, including the African Union’s representative in Somalia.
“Africa has lost a stalwart of pan-Africanism and a charismatic continental statesman,” the AU Commission chair, Moussa Faki, said on Twitter.