Ghana votes for new president to usher in oil era

Ghanaians queued up and began voting on Sunday to pick a new president in a tight race between two foreign-educated lawyers competing to lead the West African nation as it prepares to cash in on offshore oil reserves.

Peaceful elections, as most observers are expecting, would be a shot in the arm for African democracy campaigners after electoral violence in Kenya, Zimbabwe and Nigeria.

Voters in the coastal capital Accra began forming hundreds-strong queues from the early hours.

”I was here at 3.15 (3.15am GMT). I’m anxious for my party to win,” Gregoire Adukpo (62) a retired private security official, said at a polling station set up at a Catholic Church in Accra.

Across town in the Latebiorkorshie area, electoral officer Solomon Kpabi opened the vote with a prayer, prompting a loud ”Amen!” and applause from hundreds of people waiting to vote.

President John Kufuor, who turns 70 on Monday, is standing down on Janaury 7 after serving the maximum two terms. He is hoping Ghanaians will vote in his New Patriotic Party’s (NPP) chosen successor, British-trained lawyer Nana Akufo-Addo.

Seven other candidates are standing for the presidency but many Ghanaians expect the vote to end in a run-off between Akufo-Addo and main opposition candidate and tax law expert John Atta Mills, of the National Democratic Congress (NDC).

The discovery of offshore oil, which Britain’s Tullow Oil plans to start pumping out at a rate of 120 000 barrels per day in late 2010, has raised international attention on 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, said in a note to investors.

”Observers suggest that it is precisely because of the common economic ground between the two leading parties that the election will be close, and a run-off in the presidential election cannot be ruled out,” Khan said.

Regional hope
Kufuor’s centre-right government has pursued market-friendly policies that have helped Ghana’s economy grow by more than 5% annually in recent years.

But many Ghanaians say the increased wealth — visible in the plush residential developments and luxury cars in the capital Accra — have passed them by.

Government critics complain about corruption, and a wave of cocaine trafficking in West Africa over the past few years has not spared Ghana. Last year a member of Kufuor’s ruling NNP was jailed in the United States for heroin smuggling.

Sunday’s are Ghana’s fifth consecutive multiparty presidential and parliamentary elections, and will be the second transfer of power from one leader to another through the ballot box — a rare achievement in Africa.

A coalition of Ghanaian election observers, CODEO, has said irregularities during voter registration had ”cast doubt on the credibility of the voters’ register”, but said it was confident the grounds had been laid for ”peaceful and credible elections”.

Regional West African observers have said they are targeting their monitoring mission in three regions that have seen ethnic violence in the run-up to the elections, in which 12,4- million of Ghana’s 23-million people are registered to vote.

As well as voting in a new president, they will vote for the National Assembly, currently dominated by Kufuour’s NPP with 128 of the 230 seats. – Reuters

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