ACCRA, Ghana — The early morning sun bathed a line of voters as the smell of cooking fish from the nearby harbor mingled with the stench from open sewers. Standing in front of the British colonial lighthouse in Jamestown, a suburb of the capital Accra, 45-year-old businessman Mazina Yakubu said, "For me African democracy is important and, as a Ghanaian, I have to make my choice."
At another polling station close to the busy Makola Market, where piles of vegetables jostled for space with Chinese plastic plates and mugs, 42-year-old teacher Kobina Ansah-Gyan enthusiastically wagged a finger stained with ink: "This is the power! This decides
the vote and the majority will win!"
Here in Ghana that majority was wafer-thin after a breathtakingly close election that went to a second-round run-off: A mere 41,000 out of 9 million valid votes cast made Professor John Atta Mills of the center-left opposition National Democratic Congress (NDC) the country's new president. Atta Mills, 64, was sworn into office on Jan. 7.
December's polls were the fifth since multiparty democracy was reinstated by military ruler Flight Lieutenant Jerry John Rawlings in 1992. International observer groups, including the U.S.-based Carter Center, lauded the election as credible and peaceful.
"Each of the previous four elections have been an improvement over the one before which has helped in stabilizing the country and its politics," explained Professor Emmanuel Gyimah-Boadi, executive director of the Ghana Center for Democratic Development. This one has further entrenched democracy and, said Gyimah-Boadi, defies the African "trend of bogus elections that lead to civil war."
Given the tumult of 2008 this is important. The death of up to 1,500 Kenyans in fighting that followed a disputed election kicked off the year, followed by Robert Mugabe's thuggish refusal to accept defeat at Zimbabwe's polls. In Mauritania and Guinea the military took over.
Meanwhile piracy was rampant and disintegration unrelenting in Somalia, and there was an eruption of war in the east of the Democratic Republic of Congo that inevitably hurt more civilians than soldiers.
So far so bad, it seems, but there was also good news — largely ignored — out of Africa: Zambia held free and fair elections, a new opposition party emerged in South Africa to challenge the hegemony of the African National Congress and Ghana conducted a model election.
The stakes in Ghana were high because it is set to begin pumping oil in 2010 and the petrodollars from up to 1.8-billion barrels of oil will flow into state coffers. Nana Akufo-Addo, the losing candidate of the center-right New Patriotic Party, expressed what both main
political parties felt when he told a reporter before the election: "You're playing for power for a generation."
Which made it all the more remarkable that the result was accepted in good grace.
"In Ghana politics (it) is not do or die," explained Kwesi Aning, head of conflict prevention management and resolution at the Kofi Annan International Peacekeeping Center in Accra. "The political leaders do not have an interest in violence because they would lose economically."
As he cast his vote in Jamestown, 35-year-old computer technician Attoh Days asked: "Why should we die for politics?" Days added, "If my party loses or the other party loses we shall accept."
Another Ghanaian, 46-year-old trader Kwesi Nyarko, smiled as he said, "We Ghanaians we fear for ourselves, we cannot be like Kenya."
Tom Cargill, assistant head of the Africa department at the London-based Chatham House, said that prosperity is key. "Like an increasing number of African countries the wealth of the political elites is such that they can't afford to have crises," he said.
Ghana, a leading exporter of gold and cocoa, has achieved steady economic growth of around 6 percent annually recently.
The elites have benefited but the average Ghanaian has not: She remains mired in poverty without access to schools for her children or hospitals for her parents; open sewers run past her house and drinking water must be carried from a communal pump kilometers away.
This "growth without development," as Aning put it, is why the ruling party was ousted at the ballot box.
Ghana's exercise in democracy has given 2009 a good start. It has helped to show that in Africa the wishes of the electorate can count, that elections need not be stolen and that the transfer of power can be peaceful. And all this within a vibrant and combative political arena.