ACCRA, Ghana — World leaders joined thousands of Ghanaians on Friday for the funeral of President John Atta Mills, who came to symbolize Ghana's maturing democracy in a region long plagued by coups and disputed votes.
Atta Mills, 68, came to power in 2009 after winning the closest election in the country's history. The peaceful transition of leadership after that vote was lauded as was the swift and orderly inauguration of the country's vice president last month following Atta Mills' death.
On Friday, visiting dignitaries paid their respects as Atta Mills' body lay in state at the country's State House ahead of the burial service. Ghanaians dressed in red and black lined the streets as a procession brought Atta Mills' flag-draped casket through the capital.
The funeral service took place at Accra's Independence Square, near where Atta Mills had taken the oath of office less than four years ago. More than 20 African heads of state and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton were in attendance.
Abu Mohammed, a retired teacher, said he had traveled more than 250 miles (400 kilometers) from the northern regional capital of Tamale to pay his respects to the late president this week.
"President Mills is a man that proclaimed himself a father of all, and I have considered him my own father," Mohammed said. "He was a peaceful man who did not complain, even though people insulted him every day on radio. He was a man who understood democracy."
The country's vice president, John Mahama, was sworn into office hours after the president's death and is now finishing out his term. In December, Mahama is expected to face the second-place finisher from the 2008 election, Nana Akufo-Addo.
"The late President Mills was humble, honest and peace-loving. It would therefore be expedient on all Ghanaians to immortalize him by forging ahead for the development of Ghana," Mahama said Friday, urging unity.
Ghana is regarded as one of the most robust democracies in West Africa, having held two successive handovers of power following elections.
Atta Mills 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.
He also served as vice president under Jerry Rawlings, a coup leader who was later elected president by popular vote and surprised the world by stepping down after the 2000 election.