Voting for a new president and parliament in Ghana has been extended into a second day, because of glitches with the new electronic voter verification system.
Ghana has gained an enviable reputation, in its often turbulent West African neighborhood, as being something of an oasis of stability – despite tensions in the build-up to the vote.
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 Koffour, 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 in a very close presidential race in 2008.
Over the past five years, Ivory Coast, Kenya, 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.”
Of eight candidates, the two frontrunners 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. 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 ten 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. But I do think we have the possibility to make Ghana a shining star.”
Akufo-Addo, the main opposition candidate, 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, Akufo-Addo is 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 compete in the modern economy,” 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.”
President Mahama’s governing party argues that Ghana cannot afford universal free high school education just yet. But voters, like educationist Amy Fafa Awoonor, say it’s important.
“Yes, I voted for hope, for the future of our youth,” says Awoonor. “All [of] the presidential candidates seem to be very interested in education.”
Leslie Tetteh from the Education Campaign Coalition warns, however, that politically-driven educational policies have a record of failure in Ghana.
“We need to depoliticize the management of education,” Tetteh says. “We don’t normally see our truncated programs running their full terms for us to know what works and what does not work.”
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 four dollars a day.
“I voted based on … development [and] commitment,” says voter Matilda Anim-Fofie. “I want a leader who will 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.