Ghana to swear in opposition leader as president

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The Independent Online

Thousands of excited Ghanaians gathered today to see opposition leader John Atta Mills sworn in as president in a democratic transfer of power that has won plaudits from around Africa and the world.

President John Kufuor is stepping down after serving the maximum two four-year terms in office in the West African state. His party's chosen successor lost a cliffhanger presidential election run-off to Mills last week by less than 0.5 per cent.

Many thousands of people packed Independence Square by the Atlantic seafront in central Accra ahead of the ceremony. It was one of the biggest public gatherings since then-US President Bill Clinton visited Ghana more than 10 years ago.

Mills, who had lost the previous two presidential elections to Kufuor, faces an uphill task to steer Ghana's promising but indebted economy through a world financial crisis and to seek political consensus after a bruising electoral campaign.

"Fortunately, Mills himself appears to have recognised the fact that the nation is somewhat divided, as reflected in the results of the presidential runoff," said Professor Emmanuel Gyimah-Boadi, director of the Centre for Democratic Development.

"There are also immediate economic challenges. Both parties had made a lot of promises and the pressure to redeem them could lead to a hike in public spending, and that has implications for the economy," Gyimah-Boadi told Reuters in Accra.

At the ceremony, Kufuor was due to hand Mills the symbolic State Sword, in the presence of foreign dignitaries including President Umaru Yar'Adua of regional heavyweight Nigeria.

The poll, which saw isolated violence but no major trouble, has been welcomed as a boost for democracy in Africa after electoral chaos and bloodshed in Kenya, Zimbabwe and elsewhere.

Earlier today, the new parliament took office and elected Ghana's first woman speaker since the former Gold Coast colony gained independence from Britain in 1957. No party holds an outright majority in parliament, which was elected on 7 December.

Ghana was the first sub-Saharan African colony to achieve independence and became a potent symbol of African liberation.

But founding President Kwame Nkrumah's pan-Africanist dreams collapsed as Ghana entered decades of on-off army rule that only ended when former coup leader Jerry Rawlings introduced democracy in the 1990s and handed power to Kufuor in 2001.

Kufuor has supervised the transformation of the world's No. 2 cocoa grower and Africa's second biggest gold miner into one of the region's most attractive investment destinations. The country is due to become an oil producer in late 2010.

However, overspending and allegations of corruption - including the implication of senior officials in drug trafficking - have tarnished his record.

In one of his last acts, Kufuor pardoned several jailed opposition party figures yesterday in a sign of reconciliation.

They included the former head of the Ghana National Petroleum Corporation. He had been sentenced to five years in jail for "causing financial loss to the state" in what many analysts view as one of the most blatant abuses of power under Kufuor's generally well-regarded administration.

Mills will move into a lavish, newly-built presidential palace, Jubilee House, making him the first president in Ghana's history not to work out of Christianborg Castle, a former slave fort built by Danish colonialists.