NEW: Delays prompt officials to extend voting by a second day in some places
A winner is expected to be declared within days
The incumbent president is one of eight contenders vying for the top job
Candidates include the son of a former president
Ghanaians voted Friday in a general election that pits the incumbent against the son of a former president in one of Africa’s most stable democracies.
The West African nation is hailed as a beacon of peace and democracy in a region beleaguered with coups, conflicts and civil wars.
Problems were reported at some polling stations where either election materials arrived late or glitches with a new biometric voter identification system caused delays.
The electoral commission extended voting at those stations through Saturday. It was not immediately clear how many people were affected by the delays.
Incumbent leader John Dramani Mahama, a former vice president who took over after his predecessor died this year, is one of eight contenders vying for the top position.
The pool of candidates includes opposition frontrunner Nana Akufo-Addo, the son of a former president.
Analysts predict a tight race between the two main contenders. It mirrors the election four years ago in which Akufo-Addo lost to John Atta Mills with a razor-thin margin after a runoff. Mills died of an unspecified illness in July.
If no presidential candidate wins a majority of the vote in the first round, a runoff will be held later this month.
Election fever was high early Friday, with lines snaking around polling stations.
“People started lining up at 5 p.m. and spent the night at the polling stations,” said Delalorm Sesi Semabia, 25, an oil company employee who lives in the capital, Accra.
“People are enthusiastic,” he said. “This particular election is significant because candidates had debates on air and people heard their thoughts on issues. It made a huge difference, it created more passion.”
Semabia said a lot of young voters were born in the post-coup times, and want the democracy trajectory to continue.
“We have a passion for our country because we only have one Ghana,” he said. “We don’t think of elections as an end-all game. We think of it as an opportunity to progress.”
The electoral commission initially said it expected to declare the winner within 72 hours after polls close Friday. It was not clear whether the extension of voting into Saturday would delay that announcement.
Passions are running high, and the president warned that undermining peace will not be tolerated. He urged candidates to ensure that their supporters avoid incitement.
“Ghana has organized five previous successful elections, and there should not be any reason why this year’s election should not be successful,” the president said in a written statement.
Ghana is one of Africa’s fastest-growing economies, with the world’s big gold mining companies operating in the nation.
The world’s second-largest cocoa producer after neighboring Ivory Coast, it is also the continent’s biggest gold miner after South Africa, according to the United Nations.
The international community hails Ghana as a success story in the region, with U.S. President Barack Obama visiting the nation in 2009 in his first presidential trip to Sub-Saharan Africa.
At the time, Obama bypassed his father’s native Kenya and opted for Ghana, describing it as a model of peace and democracy in the continent.
“There’s sometimes a tendency to focus on the challenges that exist in Africa,” Obama said this year. “But I think it’s important for us to also focus on the good news that’s coming out of Africa, and I think Ghana continues to be a good-news story.”
But critics say that despite the rich resources that bring billions of dollars annually, the wealth is not trickling down to the rural poor who live on the land where the gold is mined.
“Mining goes with a lot of myths, like it creates jobs, it brings development, it makes people’s lives better,” said Daniel Owusu-Koranteng, a Ghanaian activist and founder of the Wassa Association of Communities Affected by Mining. “That is the first deception: that you are sitting on gold and somebody is going to mine it. You cannot imagine for once the person can take the gold away and leave you in a bad state.”
Ghana was among the first African countries to gain independence from the British, breaking loose in 1957. It endured a series of coups before Lt. Jerry Rawlings took power in 1981. A decade later, it transitioned to a stable democracy with multiparty elections.
Unlike its neighbors, including Ivory Coast, Ghana has held successful elections and power transfers since 1992 without descending into bloody chaos.
In addition to the presidential election, hundreds of candidates vied for 275 parliamentary seats.
This election marked the first time the nation of 25 million has used the new biometric voter identification system.
CNN’s Nana Karikari-apau contributed to this report.