Jerry Rawlings, a flight lieutenant who forced his way into the presidency of Ghana and led the nation into economic prominence in Africa, died Thursday in Accra. He was 73.

Rawlings, a former Ghanaian Air Force officer who had a booming voice, seized power in 1979 after a bloody coup and sparked the execution of the nation’s former leaders of state, flogged women and jailed businessmen accused of corruption.

But before he stepped down two decades later, he ushered in free elections and Ghana became an example of democracy on the African continent during a period when violent takeovers were common.

“A great tree has fallen, and Ghana is poorer for this loss,” President Nana Akufo-Addo of Ghana said of Rawlings’ death.

News reports said Rawlings died in a hospital after a brief, undisclosed illness.

Rawlings’ death occurred during a political campaign in Ghana. His death generated a campaign suspension ahead of the Dec. 7 general elections.

Akufo-Addo, who is from a rival political party, announced seven days of national mourning.

The BBC reported that several African leaders offered condolences on behalf of Rawlings, whose reputation as a leader lasted much longer than the years that he served.

African Union Commission Chair Moussa Faki Mahamat said, “Africa has lost a stalwart of Pan-Africanism and a charismatic continental statesman.”

Liberian President George Weah said, “Ghana, Liberia and Africa will miss a great leader.”

“Liberia remembers his immense contribution to the attainment and sustainment of peace during our dark days of our own history,” he added in a tweet.

Stephanie S. Sullivan, the U.S. ambassador to Ghana, said in a tweet, “The U.S. Embassy Ghana was deeply saddened to learn of the passing of former President Jerry Rawlings this morning. Truly, a great tree has fallen. May he rest in perfect peace. We extend our deepest condolences to his family and to all of Ghana in this time of national mourning.”

Hamil R. Harris

Hamil Harris is an award-winning journalist who worked at the Washington Post from 1992 to 2016. During his tenure he wrote hundreds of stories about the people, government and faith communities in the...

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