Voters in Ghana were selecting their next president and a 275-seat parliament in elections Friday, solidifying the West African nation's reputation as a beacon of democracy in the region.
Pictured: A supporter of the National Democratic Congress, Ghana's official opposition party, holds up a sign promoting change during a rally in Tema, roughly 30Km east of the capital Accra. Oliver Asselin for The National
Some 14 million people are expected to turn out. President John Dramani Mahama, in office for only five months, is running against seven contenders. A former vice president, Mahama became president in July after the unexpected death of former President John Atta Mills. The 54-year-old is also a former minister and parliamentarian and has written an acclaimed biography, "My First Coup d'Etat."
His main challenger is Nana Akufo-Addo, a former foreign minister and the son of one of Ghana's previous presidents. The contender lost the 2008 election to Mills by less than 1 percent. Both men are trying to make the case that they will use the nation's newfound oil wealth to help the poor.
Ghana, a nation of 25 million, is one of the few established democracies in the region as well as the fastest-growing economy. But a deep divide still exists between those benefiting from the country's oil, cocoa and mineral wealth and those left behind financially.
In an interview on the eve of the vote, Akufo-Addo told The Associated Press that the first thing he will do if elected is begin working on providing free high school education for all. "It's a matter of great concern to me," he said, adding that he plans to use the nation's oil wealth to educate the population, industrialize the economy and create better jobs for Ghanaians.
Policy-oriented and intellectual, Akufo-Addo is favored by the young and urbanized voters. He was educated in England and comes from a privileged family. The ruling party has depicted him as elitist, which Akufo-Addo calls "a little PR construct."
"The idea that merely because you are born into privilege that automatically means you are against the welfare of the ordinary people, that's nonsense," he said.
Ghana had one of the fastest growing economies in the world in 2011. Allegations of corruption against the ruling party are rife.
Akufo-Addo said that if elected, he would not be able to weed out corruption in the government overnight.
"It's a long fight," he said. "But we build the institutions that can fight it."
He said that in 30 years in politics he has never been accused of corruption.
Many analysts believe Mahama and Akufo-Addo are neck-and-neck.
Results are expected to be announced by Sunday, but could be delayed. If no one wins an absolute majority, a second round of voting will be held on December 28.
All candidates have signed a peace pact and have promised to accept the results of Friday's poll.
Ghana, a nation of 25 million, has previously held five transparent elections in a row. Nearby Mali, which was also considered a model democracy, was plunged into chaos this March following a military coup.
Associated Press writer Francis Kokutse contributed to this report from Accra, Ghana.
SOURCE: LAURA BURKE