Ghana, where the opposition won a razor-thin presidential election victory at the weekend, has delivered the kind of democratic success story that many nations have found hard to achieve, whether in Africa or beyond.
At a time when scenes of violence and intimidation have played prominently in the imagery surrounding polling in Nigeria, Kenya and Zimbabwe, the scenario navigated by Ghana could have tipped less stable peers into turmoil.
John Atta Mills, the leading opposition National Democratic Congress candidate, has been declared the winner of the December 28 run-off with 50.23 per cent of the vote, beating Nana Akufo-Addo, representing the ruling New Patriotic party, who won 49.77 per cent.
The stakes were dauntingly high: the winner will preside over Ghana’s transformation from an exporter of gold and cocoa into a potentially significant producer of oil after 2010.
How Ghana managed a peaceful transition says much about the country’s journey from the dark days of military coups and decline following independence in 1957 to its present status as one of Africa’s better-performing economies.
Crucial decisions by leaders and the development of a formidable electoral commission and civil society since the multi-party system was established in 1992 offer pointers on how more fragile democracies can avoid settling poll disputes by bullet and blade.
“A lot of people remember the excesses of the 20 years before 1992,” said David “Kojo” Awuah-Darko, chief executive of IC Securities Holdings, an Africa-focused investment bank, in Accra, the capital. “There’s absolutely no way, with all the investment that people have put into this country, that we want to go back.”
Jerry Rawlings, the populist air force officer who took power in 1981, surprised many when he stepped down following elections in 2000. He handed power to the opposition, sealing the first democratic transition. John Kufuor, president for the following eight years, then respected a constitutional two-term limit.
Although some in the New Patriotic party are reluctant to accept defeat – legal wrangling may follow – Mr Akufo-Addo has conceded.
By Matthew Green in Lagos