Ghana votes in tight election

Ghanaian President and candidate of the ruling National Democratic Congress (NDC) party John Mahama (C) arrives to cast his vote at a polling booth in the Bole District, northern region, on December 7, 2016 PHOTO | AFP 

Ghanaians queued on Wednesday to choose a new president between incumbent John Mahama and his rival Nana Akufo-Addo in a tight race.

Once praised by US President Barack Obama for its peaceful transfers of power, Ghana has come under fire amid reports of voter intimidation and questions over the independence of its election agency.

This election is seen as a litmus test of stability for one of Africa's most secure democracies.

Charismatic Mahama hopes to win a second four-year term, but veteran opposition leader Akufo-Addo has chipped away at the popularity of the ruling National Democratic Congress (NDC) party, focusing on Ghana's sluggish growth and high-profile corruption scandals.

Beaten up

Tension built up in the run-up to the vote, however, with a supporter of the opposition New Patriotic Party (NPP) beaten to death and six others critically wounded in clashes this week in the north.

On election day, NPP candidate Cecilia Gyan Amoah told AFP she had been beaten up with five others by vigilantes known locally as "macho men" reportedly hired by political parties.

The NPP's Asutifu South candidate said she and her team had been assaulted by men holding guns and cutlasses, leaving one of her team in a critical condition.

"Such things shouldn't happen in a country like Ghana. They have put fear into most of the people," she said.

Everything is messy

Casting his vote, Mr Akufo-Addo said it was "very important" for the election to go off smoothly and peacefully "so that Ghana continues to maintain this deserved image of being a democracy that takes its democracy seriously".

An exporter of gold, cocoa and oil, Ghana was once hailed as a regional growth model, but has now taken on too much debt, and in 2015 had to go to the International Monetary Fund for a bailout.

"We are facing a lot of problems economically, everything is messy," said Ms Julie Amofah, 26, who voted in Kibi, a town 80km from the capital, Accra.

"I voted for change so we can move forward."

Shadrack Opoku, an 18-year-old high school student, said Mr Akufo-Addo is the "right person for our country" and can secure future growth.

"When we complete university, we want better jobs," Opoku said.

Electoral officials prepare materials as people queue before voting at a polling station in Bole District, northern Ghana, on December 7, 2016. Ghanaians cast their ballots in neck and neck presidential and parliamentary polls held at a time of economic woes and corruption scandals that have eroded President John Mahama's lustre. PHOTO | AFP

"Right now it's not good."

There are seven candidates battling for the top job — including former first lady Nana Konadu Agyeman-Rawlings — and if the smaller parties perform well and deny either man a majority, a run-off will be held later this month.

In the final days of the campaign, president Mahama, who is 58, flexed his significant resources to reach as many battleground regions as possible where he inaugurated blockbuster infrastructure projects, including railways and airports.

"Mahama has done well for us," said mr Abudula Alhassan, a 40-year-old driver in the northern town of Bole, a government stronghold.

In contrast, Mr Akufo-Addo blasted Ghana's poor economic growth which stood at 3.3 percent in 2016 — the slowest rate in two decades — and outlined how to get the economy back on track.

The 72-year-old is making his third — and likely final — bid for the highest office.

Corruption scandals

He also lambasted president Mahama's government over a series of corruption scandals in which scores of judges have been implicated.

Critics say the head of state squandered the country's commodity wealth and turned a blind eye to graft within his inner circle.

During his tenure, the Bank of Ghana controversially bought half a million dollars worth of gold Swiss watches for some of its staff.

Mr Akufo-Addo has also alleged that the ruling party is fomenting violence, a claim president Mahama denies.

President Mahama insisted after voting in Bole that Ghana would remain a model of freedom.

Sobering failures

"This election is going to consolidate that democracy further," he told AFP.

Elections in Ghana are famously close fought, with Mahama narrowly winning in 2012 with 50.7 per cent.

But polls in Africa this year have been a mixed bag of surprising triumphs and sobering failures for democracy.

In Gambia, a dictator of 22 years conceded defeat, while in oil-rich Gabon the Bongo family continued its 50-year reign after a disputed election. (AFP)

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