Ghana holds close vote as veteran rivals square off
Ghanaians voted Monday in an election seen as a close fight between President Nana Akufo-Addo and his longtime rival John Mahama to lead a country viewed as a beacon of stability in troubled West Africa.
Raucous crowds thronged the streets of the historic Jamestown area of the oceanside capital Accra as polling stations closed at 1700 GMT to celebrate another peaceful election.
Twelve candidates ran for the nation's top job along with hundreds of others vying for parliament's 275 seats.
"I'm just here to watch and make sure everything goes smoothly," Ishmael Adjei, 24, a private security guard, huddled in front of an Accra polling station.
"I'm confident the opposition party will win."
The main contenders have faced each other twice before and once again the race is expected to be very close.
In the eastern town of Kyebi, people chanted "four more years!" as incumbent president Akufo-Addo of the New Patriotic Party (NPP) cast his vote..
A November survey by the University of Ghana put Akufo-Addo narrowly ahead --with 51.7 percent of support.
There has never been a second round in Ghanaian elections and the two parties have handed over power peacefully seven times since the return of democracy more than 30 years ago.
"I'm feeling fine, happy that the process is going well and peacefully," the 76-year-old Akufo-Addo said.
Mahama, 62, of the National Democratic Congress party (NDC) was less gushing.
"It's too early to make an assessment, but I understand there have been a few hitches," Mahama said.
A few polling stations opened late and isolated cases of ballot tampering were reported by the electoral commission but there were no major incidents across the country's 38,000 polling stations.
'There are no jobs'
While Ghana, the world's second-largest cocoa-producing country, has made giant strides in the last 20 years, many still live in extreme poverty with scarce access to clean water or electricity.
Key issues in Monday's vote included unemployment, infrastructure, education and health.
In the poor fishing village of Chorkor, 44-year-old Aku Brown, a mother of two unemployed children, is worried about the future.
"There are no jobs. The current government say they are doing this and that but it is all talk, they have not done anything for us," said Brown.
First time voter Nashua Ahmed echoed her, saying inflation had added to their challenges.
"These days everything is more expensive. The economy is very bad," said Ahmed. "The government has to make it up to us."
Growth in the nation of 30 million people, hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic, is expected to fall this year to 0.9 percent -- its lowest in three decades -- according to the International Monetary Fund.
Akufo-Addo has been given high marks for his handling of the pandemic and his record on free education and improving access to electricity.
But he has disappointed some with his performance on tackling graft -- the key issue on which he was elected four years ago.
However Mahama has found it hard to highlight this, as he himself left office under a cloud of corruption allegations.
Mahama has also been criticised for poor economic decisions and racking up unsustainable debts.
Symbolic peace pact
The stability in Ghana contrasts with that of other countries in the region, with deadly unrest this year in Guinea and Ivory Coast.
EU's chief observer Javier Nart told AFP that in Ghana "it's not the Kalashnikov that commands, it is the ballot box."
The two major parties have always pursued their grievances through the courts.
To ensure its continued tradition of peaceful polls, Akufo-Addo and Mahama on Friday signed a symbolic peace pact.
"The one thing we think is worth laying emphasis on is the overall message by the major contesters that peace matters," former South African president and current head of the African Union observer mission, Kgalema Petrus Motlanthe told AFP.
"There are lessons to be picked up, good practices to be shared with other African Union members."
The coronavirus pandemic has posed a challenge in this year's election, with 10,000 more polling stations than usual set up for the nation's 17 million registered voters.
Hand sanitisers were made available for voters, who underwent temperature checks before being let into polling stations.