Thousands massed in Ghana’s capital on Wednesday to see president-elect John Atta-Mills take over from John Kufuor, after cliffhanger elections in this West African country viewed as one of the continent’s pioneers of democracy.
Kufuor, a respected figure and one of the few African leaders to bow out gracefully after two four-year terms in office, is the third longest serving leader of Ghana after Jerry Rawlings and Kwame Nkrumah, the country’s first president.
The handover will be the second time in a decade that power switches between one of the country’s two rival parties. It will also mark the second time a democratically chosen leader peacefully hands over to another.
Atta-Mills (64) will be sworn in by Chief Justice Georgina Woode at a ceremony to be attended by several African heads of states and a representative of the former colonial power, Mark Malloch-Brown, the British secretary of state for Africa.
Among African leaders expected to attend were Laurent Gbagbo from Côte d’Ivoire, Liberia’s Ellen Sirleaf-Johnson and Blaise Compaore of Burkina Faso.
Nigerian President Umaru Yar’Adua was expected to be guest speaker, Ghana News Agency said.
By midday, several thousand Ghanaians, most in the regalia of Atta-Mills’s National Democratic Congress (NDC) party, had assembled in Independence Square, Accra’s largest, decorated in the national colours of green, yellow, red and black.
”Conservatively, we can say there are 15 000 people as of now and more are on their way,” said a police officer.
Dozens of white marquees have been erected to take invited guests who trickled in slowly as a troupe of dancers on stilts wowed the crowd.
Four huge drums from Ashanti, the region from which Kufuor originates, occupied pride of place. Two of the drums, which are reserved for presidential ceremonies, were 3m high and the drummers had to climb on scaffolding to reach them.
Mills becomes president of Ghana, best known for its cocoa and its gold, after narrowly beating his rival by less than half a percentage point in a bitterly fought run-off.
After the pomp and fanfare, the soft-spoken British-educated law professor faces the tough task of improving the standards of living of a people whose expectations have been raised by a recent oil find.
Mills, who ran his campaign under the slogan ”A Better Man for a Better Ghana”, is sweeping into office amid a credit crunch expected to see capital inflows dry up and export revenue drop.
Although Ghana — the home of former UN secretary general Kofi Annan — is hailed as a model of prosperity and stability in West Africa, Mills says the economy is not faring well.
But he faces a thin parliamentary majority.
”The Parliament is virtually evenly divided, meaning he [Atta-Mills] may not get an easy majority in terms of passing Bills into law and getting Parliament to support all his acts,” outgoing president Kufuor said on Tuesday, while bidding farewell to local traditional chiefs at his office.
With only a slim majority, Atta-Mills will need to be flexible and to govern in a transparent and accountable style, Kufuor said.
Atta-Mills rose to prominence in 1997 when former leader Jerry Rawlings named him vice-president — a position he held until the former coup leader-turned-elected president made way for Kufuor after elections in 2000.
Atta-Mills previously lost twice to Kufuor, in 2000 and again in 2004. — AFP