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Ghana vote eyes lasting peace

Current era is a beacon in Africa

ACCRA, Ghana -- This small West African nation may seem a bit ho hum compared to much of the restive continent, with its functioning democracy, paved roads, friendly police, and growing economy.

That's fine with most Ghanaians, who remember too well a past when coup d'etats and despots defined their nation, the first in sub-Saharan Africa to win independence. So when Ghana elects a president today, more of the same is a mandate most voters are passionate to deliver.

"No matter what happens, we must not destroy our nation!" declared the Rev. Mensa Otabil, one of many pastors across the hazy industrial quarter of Ghana's capital who focused their Sunday sermons on the election.

"The havoc, bloodshed, and anarchy that has plagued other African nations must not enter our borders," Otabil told his International Central Gospel Church.

Incumbent John Kufuor is expected to defeat his main rival, John Atta Mills, as he did four years ago -- an election that marked the country's first peaceful, democratic transition of power since independence from Britain in 1957. Mill's party, the National Democratic Congress, is the party of longtime president Jerry Rawlings, who gave up power in 2000 after ruling for nearly 20 years. Rawlings took control in a 1981 coup, and did the country's business with intimidation and a gun for more than a decade before yielding to multiparty elections and economic policies advised by the International Monetary Fund and World Bank.

Rawlings then won elections in 1992 and 1996. Mills served as vice president during Rawling's last term, and opponents say a vote for Mills is also one for Rawlings, who remains permanent chairman of the political party.

Mills, 60, spent his career as a tax law professor in Africa, Europe, and the United States before entering politics. Kufuor, 64, is a lawyer who served in Rawling's government before breaking away to head the New Patriotic Party.

There are two other candidates in the race, but they lack large followings. Voters will also cast ballots for 230 seats in parliament. About half the nation's 20 million people are expected to vote.

Both Kufuor and Mills say they want to continue the current era of peace in Ghana. They also want to advance the economy, which relies heavily on cocoa, gold mining, and tourism. Cocoa yields have nearly doubled under the microeconomic policies of the current administration, with this year's crop the largest since 1965.

Kufuor's campaign slogan, "So far, so good," appears on posters plastered across the country.

Ghana's per capita income has risen, but the average person still only earns $450 a year. According to the government, unemployment is at 20 percent.

"Ghanaians have become more disillusioned," Mills said in an interview. "The government wants people to think life is good for them when they themselves know that life is getting worse and worse. People are beginning to lose confidence."

Hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets and public parks in the capital over the weekend as the two main candidates campaigned. While most people expect a peaceful election, the fear of violence persists, spurred by memories of Ghana's violent past.

So on Sunday, the prayers -- Ghana is 70 percent Christian -- were all about polling places and peace. Ghana, Otabil told parishioners, must keep rising above the violence seen in neighboring Ivory Coast, even as other African nations -- Nigeria, Mali, South Africa, Kenya, and several others -- try to secure democratic gains of the past decade.

"We have become a beacon of hope for Africa," Otabil told his church. "So let's continue to be that beacon."

The congregation rose to its feet, thundering, "Amen!"

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