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Ghana's President John Dramani Mahama arrives at a polling station to cast his vote. (AFP/Getty Images)

Voters Decide How To Share Ghana's Boom

Dec 8, 2012 (Weekend Edition Saturday)

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Ghanaians vote in presidential and parliamentary elections on Friday.

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Voting for a new president and parliament in Ghana has been extended into a second day in some areas due to glitches with the new biometric voter verification system.

Ghana, which began pumping crude oil in 2010 and is also a major cocoa and gold exporter, has gained an enviable reputation in its often-turbulent West African neighborhood. It's admired for being a relative oasis of stability and peace in the region — despite tensions in the build-up to the vote.

A Peaceful Democracy

The unofficial 2012 election campaign theme in Ghana was peace. Musicians from the local labor union composed special songs and the politicians seeking election or re-election publicly committed to peace.

"Ghana has been peaceful anytime we have elections, but violence has cropped up," says Bice Osei Kuffour, who heads Ghana's musicians' union. "So, you need to work on it constantly; keep reminding people about the need for peace, the need for tolerance."

Ghana has had five elections and two peaceful transfers of power under its belt since the end of military rule in 1992. President Obama has praised Ghana as a "model of democracy" in Africa because, despite heightened tension, it stepped back from the brink of unrest in a very close presidential race in 2008.

Over the past five years, Ivory Coast, Kenya, Madagascar, Mali and Guinea Bissau have tipped over the edge into conflict — just before or after elections.

"Ghana has always been the icon of Africa, so I think leaders also count," says voter Alberta Adzani. "If the leaders are disciplined, peace is everywhere."

Two Candidates' Visions

Of eight candidates, the two front-runners are Ghana's president of the last five months, 54-year-old John Dramani Mahama, and 68-year-old opposition challenger Nana Addo Dankwa Akufo-Addo.

In July, then-Vice President Mahama became president after the sudden death of Ghana's late leader, John Evans Atta Mills. Mahama is often described as affable and has pledged to tackle corruption and build prosperity for Ghanaians.

"Ghana is doing fine in Africa. Last year, among the 10 top, fastest growing economies, six were African — and Ghana was the top of the list," Mahama says. "One of the major things we should keep an eye on [is] how we share the fruits of growth to make sure that the socially vulnerable classes of society are not left behind."

"But I do think we have the possibility to make Ghana a shining star," he adds.

Akufo-Addo is a seasoned lawyer and former foreign and justice minister. He suffered a narrow defeat in the presidential election four years ago. This time around, he's promising to spend some of Ghana's new oil money on education — specifically free high school. The issue came to define the campaign.

"The biggest priority of our country is education, to prepare our population to be able to live, function and compete in the modern economy," Akufo-Addo says.

Education Becomes Political

President Mahama's governing party argues that Ghana cannot afford universal free high school education just yet. But voters say the issue is important. Educationist Amy Fafa Awoonor says it's close to her heart.

"Yes, I voted for hope, for the future of our youth," Awoonor says. "All [of] the presidential candidates seem to be very interested in education."

Akufo-Addo says "the skepticism is being put forward by people who are themselves beneficiaries of free secondary education. Many of the major countries of the West have it. America has it."

Leslie Tetteh from the Education Campaign Coalition says the management of education needs to be depoliticized. Politically driven educational policies have a record of failure in Ghana, he says.

"We don't normally see our truncated programs and education-strategic action plans running their full terms for us to know what works and what does not work," Tetteh says.

A Building Boom

Many voters consider progress a priority. Bustling Accra, the nation's capital and largest city, resembles a building site, complete with swanky new offices and residences. There's also a property boom in the oil capital, Sekondi-Takoradi, on Ghana's western coast. But most people live on less than $4 a day.

"I voted based on ... development [and] commitment," voter Matilda Anim-Fofie says. "I want a leader who will be dedicated and sincere to his promises."

One candidate needs to win the first round outright, with more than 50 percent of the vote, to avoid a presidential run-off in three weeks.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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