Jerry Rawlings, who seized power twice in military coups but is now regarded as a driving force behind Ghana’s emergence as a stable democracy, died on Thursday at the age of 73, his party said.
His 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.
“A great tree has fallen, and Ghana is poorer for this loss,” President Akufo-Addo said in a statement on Rawlings’ death.
John Mahama, leader of the National Democratic Congress (NDC) party that Rawlings founded, said in a Twitter message 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 Akufo-Addo in a 2016 election, and other candidates from smaller parties.
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 liberalised 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.
“Africa has lost a stalwart of Pan-Africanism and a charismatic continental statesman,” AU Commission chair Moussa Faki said on Twitter.