ACCRA, Ghana – The year was 1966 and a 7-year-old boy named John Dramani Mahama was standing by the door of his boarding school, wondering why his father wasn't there to fetch him. The Easter holiday was approaching, classes were done, and everyone else had left.
But as Mahama would relate in a memoir, his father didn't show up. He was in jail and Ghana was in the throes of a coup d'etat, dashing the hopes kindled just nine years previously when the former British colony became an icon of Third World liberation — the first in sub-Saharan Africa to be freed from European colonialism.
Today, those hopes are alive again. After five coups and decades of stagnation, the West African nation of 25 million is now a pacesetter for the continent's efforts to become democratic. It's having another presidential election on Friday, with televised debates between the candidates, campaign messages on Twitter and Facebook, biometric voter IDs, plus a culture that has taken to peaceful politics with gusto.
And a leading candidate is John Mahama, who grew up through the coups, became president after democracy took root, and this fall published "My First Coup d'Etat," a memoir that has won international acclaim.
His candidacy itself is a model of democratic procedure. He became vice president under John Atta Mills in the 2008 election, and took the helm with parliamentary approval after Mills died the following July. Now he is the first sitting president to debate his challengers on television. In a race that opinion polls say will be close, he is vowing to preserve Ghana as a showcase of good governance, enjoying "the respect that we deserve, as we have since we gained independence first in sub-Saharan Africa."
It's an ambition shared by the electorate. "We won't allow our country to fall back to what it used to be," said Awaku Yirenkyi, a tour guide leading schoolchildren around the mausoleum of Kwame Nkrumah, the first leader of independent Ghana and a touchstone figure in modern African history.
Yirenkyi remembers himself at age 7 during a spell of dictatorship when he stood in food lines with his mother, hoping to buy a single sardine. Now 37, he sees Ghana's success as the fruit of "a collective, deliberate effort" to put the repressive past behind it.
In the debates, complete with signing for deaf viewers, the candidates fielded questions ranging from tackling corruption to family planning and how to spend the country's new oil money.
This election, for president as well as for the 230-seat parliament, has its problems. Supporters of the ruling party in one town have been attacked and needed hospitalization; there have been credible reports of a member of the ruling party hiring thugs to disrupt balloting. Isolated though these incidents might be, they remind Ghanaians that democracy is fragile.
"I don't take it for granted," said Martina Odonkor, an author. She was 13 in the 1979 coup and can talk about the fear people felt of disappearing into Burma Camp, the military headquarters in Accra, the capital.
"We heard women were being beaten up in the streets by soldiers because they were wearing trousers, and all kinds of crazy stuff like that. It was an atmosphere of fear, tension and increasing deprivation," she said. "The universities shut down, boarding schools shut down. Education basically stopped.
"There were fuel shortages, food shortages and people were accused of hoarding if they had crates of goods in their houses."
Until recently democracy was on the upswing in Africa. According to Freedom House, the Washington, D.C.-based think tank, on a scale of "free," ''partly free" and "not free," the number of "free" nations grew from 3 to 11 between 1989 and 2007, while the "not free" fell from 34 to 13.
But Freedom House's Africa programs director, Vukasin Petrovic, warns of "a steady decline in democracy" in recent years.
"The sharpest declines occurred in the categories of Freedom of Expression and Belief (22 countries), Political Pluralism and Participation (20 countries), and Rule of Law (20 countries)," he wrote in February.
"The deterioration in these areas reflects the determination of political elites to hold on to power at any cost, and particularly to hijack elections," he wrote, and warned that unless things changed, "sub-Saharan Africa will continue to slip back toward where it started in the early 1970s."
Even in Ghana, after five peaceful, multicandidate elections in a row, suspicion of fraud still runs high, and there are widespread fears that the biometric voter ID won't work.
Still, those like Odonkor who remember the bad times are especially apt to value what they have gained.
Shipped to school abroad, she returned in 1992 to a country holding its first democratic election. And now, "there is freedom of speech and freedom of the press, a huge difference from that time."
And Ghanaians make full use of that freedom to air a litany of complaints against their elected leaders.
Although Ghana registered the fastest economic growth in sub-Saharan Africa in 2011,spurred by new oil production and a construction boom, Ghanaians ask why they aren't feeling richer. Kwesi Jonah, a research fellow with the Accra-based Institute for Democratic Governance, says Ghana's democracy is a "democracy without jobs, democracy without good drinking water, democracy without roads, without a good supply of electricity."
"Health insurance is not working," said housekeeper Judith Ayirebi, 27. It's supposed to be free, but hospitals demand payment, she said. "I will vote for NPP because they will bring secondary education and health insurance. That's what's important to me."
Four candidates are running, led by Mahama and Nana Akufo-Addo, who lost the presidency by less than 1 percent in 2008.
Both are scions of elite political families.
Akufo-Addo, a former foreign minister and attorney general, and championed human rights during the coup years. He grew up in England and at 68 still has a strong British accent.
Mahama, 54, was born in a village in the poor, arid north and is popular among the working poor. His father was a prosperous farm owner and government official. He grew up a socialist, and though his convictions were shaken by his experiences while at college in Moscow, he retains socialist leanings.
Nana Akufo-Addo says he'll make high school free and boost industry rather than keep the economy reliant on exporting raw materials. Mahama promises new colleges and better health care, and takes credit for the high growth rate.
But many accuse the ruling party of being corrupt and wonder why basic services aren't reaching those who need them.
"We are not feeling the impact in our pockets," said Dorcas Yeboah, 21, a psychology student. "In our discovery of oil, we were expecting a lot of money would be coming into our economy."
Geography plays a big role in the election. The north, Mahama's home base, has seen little of the prosperity boosting Accra and the coastal south. In the north farming families go hungry when their corn stocks run out, hospitals lack doctors and many students still learn under trees.
But even Accra, population 2.3 million, suffers from frequent power cuts and water rationing. Roads are congested and slum dwellers treat the beach as a communal toilet.
Yet office blocks are rising, and showrooms offer luxury cars. Thai and sushi restaurants are cropping up among rows of shops made of brightly colored shipping containers. The rhythmic pounding of "hip-life," Ghana's brand of hip-hop, mixes with the hum of generators during blackouts.
"The reason Ghanaians are so drawn to democracy," analyst Jonah said, "is because they have seen that democracy in Western countries has brought a very high level of development, and they want to be like America, they want to be like Britain."
He said that if the rulers can deliver the services the people need, "Then people will say, 'OK, democracy isn't just every four years selecting people. Democracy also brings development.'''