Ghanaians voted in large numbers yesterday to choose between two foreign-trained lawyers hoping to lead them into an era of oil-funded prosperity in a tight poll that may set an example for African democracy.
Observers said voting was generally peaceful despite delays in some areas and violence at a handful of polling stations. Successful polls would be a boost for democracy in Africa after electoral bloodshed in Kenya, Zimbabwe and Nigeria.
Voters waited in their hundreds at some polling stations as the searing sun rose high over the coastal capital Accra. "I was here at 3.15am," Gregoire Adukpo, 62, a retired private security official, said at a polling station set up at a Catholic church. "I'm anxious for my party to win."
The Electoral Commission chairman, Kwadwo Afari-Gyan, said: "Turnout is going to be very high. I should expect a higher number than we saw in the last elections because I could see this one is very competitive." Turnout in 2004 was a record 85 per cent.
President John Kufuor, who turns 70 on Monday, is standing down on 7 January after serving the maximum two terms. "What excites me is that I've ended my tenure, I believe, on a good note with the entire nation showing readiness to help select my successor and members of the next parliament," Mr Kufuor said after voting near his home in one of Accra's most exclusive neighbourhoods. "So far so good."
He has asked Ghanaians to deliver a first-round win to his New Patriotic Party's (NPP) chosen successor, Nana Akufo-Addo, a British-trained lawyer and son of a former president. Seven other candidates are standing but many Ghanaians expect a 28 December run-off between Mr Akufo-Addo and the main opposition candidate and tax law expert, John Atta Mills, of the centre-left National Democratic Congress (NDC).
The NDC founder, Jerry Rawlings, a former coup leader who brought democratic rule in the 1990s and stood down eight years ago, voted to loud cheers in a poor neighbourhood behind the seat of government, Christianborg Castle, a former slave-trading fort. Voters are also electing the National Assembly, now dominated by Mr Kufuor's NPP with 128 of the 230 seats.
The discovery of offshore oil, which Britain's Tullow Oil plans to start pumping at 120,000 barrels per day in late 2010, has heightened international attention to the poll. But the global slowdown means celebrations may be delayed. "Although there is 'everything to play for' in terms of oil, the economic reality is that 2009 will be a difficult year in which to manage the economy," Razia Khan, Africa research head at Standard Chartered Bank, told investors.
Under Mr Kufuor's centre-right administration, Ghana's economy has grown by nearly 6 per cent annually. The former British colony is the world's second-biggest cocoa grower and Africa's second-biggest gold-miner. But many Ghanaians say the wealth has passed them by. "We want the new government to provide jobs," said jobless Derrick Agbanyo, 28, waiting to vote in a poor part of Accra. "They should give us better schools, better health facilities."
Government critics complain of corruption, and drug trafficking has spread in west Africa. Last year, a member of the NNP was jailed in the US for heroin smuggling.