ACCRA, Ghana – With five peaceful elections under its belt, Ghana has shed its past of military coups and is poised to choose a president and a 275-seat parliament at the ballot box on Friday.
The main question for the 25 million people of this gold, cocoa and oil producing nation is which candidate will ensure the country's new-found wealth reaches the poor and middle classes.
Ghana began producing oil in 2010 and had the fastest-growing economy in sub-Saharan Africa in 2011 with 14.3 percent growth, according to the World Bank. Per capita income is rising at 3 percent per year, government records say. But many in this African nation have not benefitted.
"If tangibly on the ground people are not seeing that translated into improved conditions for themselves, then questions are being asked as to why," said Kissy Agyeman-Togobo, a partner with Songhai Advisory, a business intelligence consultancy with offices in London and Accra. She said allegations of corruption against the government are also creating "a cleavage between the governed and the governing."
Ghana is still feeling the effects of the political and economic stagnation in the 1970s and '80s, when the country underwent five coups and development stalled. Unlike its once-prosperous neighbor, Ivory Coast, Ghana lacks potable water, and open sewers line the traffic-clogged streets of the humid coastal capital. Shortages of natural gas from the West Africa pipeline in Nigeria have resulted in frequent power outages.
"We want infrastructure such as roads, water and electricity, and above all, accountable government, that ... will use our tax money without tampering with it," said computer technician Mohammed Garibo, 39, who is backing President John Dramani Mahama.
Thirty-six-year-old receptionist Joe Odoteye said he is supporting opposition leader Nana Akufo-Addo because he thinks the candidate will use the public purse responsibly.
"One thing about Ghana is we have a lot of God-blessed natural resources. Where does the money from those resources go?" Odoteye said.
Polls show Mahama, who took the helm in July after the death of former President John Atta Mills, is neck-and-neck with Akufo-Addo, who lost the 2008 poll by less than 1 percent to Mills. Though six other candidates are on the ballot, they are not expected to win more than 1 percent each, according to polling groups. Both candidates have been holding back-to-back rallies and posting constant campaign messages to Twitter and Facebook.
Mahama, 54, was a member of parliament and then a minister before becoming vice-president in January 2009. Akufo-Addo is a lawyer by training and served as foreign minister under former President John Kufuor. He is also the son of late President Edward Akufo-Addo.
Policy-oriented and intellectual, Akufo-Addo is favored by the young and urbanized voters, but many ruling party supporters call him arrogant. He spent years studying in England and speaks with a strong British accent.
Akufo-Addo slammed the ruling party as corrupt.
"The fruits of office, the money under the table, has become sweet for them, so they are determined to stay," Akufo-Addo shouted at a rally Wednesday. "Are we going to allow that to happen?"
The crowd then roared back, "No!"
Mahama, of the center-left National Democratic Congress, held his own rally Wednesday. He promised to uphold the country's tradition of peace and to be "the needle that will sew the cloth of Ghana together."
"I cannot speak for the other candidate but I can speak for myself. Professor Mills trained me very well," he said, as the crowd cheered for the late president.
If no one wins an absolute majority, a second round of voting will be held on Dec. 28.
For the first time, Ghanaians registered to vote biometrically, a growing trend throughout Africa to prevent multiple voting. Kwesi Jonah, a senior research fellow at the Accra-based center for Institute for Democratic Governance, who observed voter registration, said it's not clear if Ghana will pull it off.
"Our experience with the biometric voter registration did not inspire much confidence in technology. The technology broke down so many times," he said.
In 2008 John Kufuor stepped down after two terms, marking the second successful handover of power in Ghana. And after Mills' death in July, parliament swore in Mahama within 24-hours in a seamless transition of power. But Ghana's history of coups is not far from some minds.
"Elections remind us how young our democracy is, how fragile it is," said author Martina Odonkor, 44. "I think elections are a time when we all lose our cockiness about being such a shining light of democracy in Africa, and we start to get a bit nervous that things could go back to how they used to be."
Associated Press writer Francis Kokutse in Accra, Ghana contributed to this report.