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Ghana's new president: Africa's symbol of a working democracy

John Atta Mills took the oath of office Wednesday after a closely contested race.

By Tristan McConnellCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / January 8, 2009

Rich Clabaugh/STAFF

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Accra, Ghana

Thousands of Ghanaians packed Independence Square in the capital Wednesday to welcome their new president after an election so close that one small rural constituency held the key to victory for opposition candidate John Atta Mills.

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Ghana's orderly transition of power is a bright spot after a dismal year for democracy in Africa. More than 1,000 Kenyans died in violent attacks that followed a disputed election 12 months ago. Kenya's crisis was followed by Zimbabwe's flawed elections, which resulted in a power-sharing agreement that has yet to be implemented. In Mauritania and Guinea, the military seized power from the elected governments.

"The election in Ghana is very important because the year started so badly with the violence in Kenya," says analyst Tom Cargill, assistant head of the Africa Program at the Chatham House, a research group in London. He points out that successful elections were held in Zambia last year, and in Sierra Leone in 2007. "The general trend is in a positive direction and Ghana is a continuation of that," he says.

Ghana has been embraced as an example to the continent's fledgling democracies. Kenya's prime minister, Raila Odinga, described Ghana as "a rare example of democracy at work in Africa." United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon called Ghana "an admirable example."

That the election was peaceful and transparent is all the more remarkable because the stakes were so high – revenue from reserves of 1.8 billion barrels of oil is expected to flow in 2010 – and the margin of victory was wafer-thin. Nine million votes were cast yet, only 41,000 – less than half a percent – separated Mr. Mills of the center-left National Democratic Congress (NDC) from his opponent Nana Akufo-Addo of the ruling center-right New Patriotic Party (NPP).

The winner was conciliatory in victory. "There is no NDC Ghana, there is no NPP Ghana .... There is one Ghana," Atta Mills told cheering supporters after official results were announced this past weekend. "I assure Ghanaians that I will be president for all," he added.

One Western diplomat in Accra pointed out that a close election does not have to be violent. "This is [more like] Florida, not Kenya," he said.