Ghana's new leader urges respect for democracy in Africa

Accra (AFP) - The winner of Ghana's presidential election Nana Akufo-Addo on Saturday warned that African leaders who reject democracy were "fighting the tide of history", following his nation's high-stakes vote.

Defying predictions that the presidential race would be neck-and-neck, Akufo-Addo sailed to victory on a wave of anger over a sputtering economy, winning 53.8 percent of Wednesday's vote over incumbent John Mahama.

And fears of widespread violence and concerns over the independence of Ghana's electoral commission never materialised, cementing the West African country's reputation as a beacon of democracy in a region plagued by dictators and coups.

"I believe that those who are going against the idea of competitive politics, electoral politics, are fighting the tide of history in West Africa and in the general African region," Akufo-Addo told AFP in an interview at his modest house in the capital of Accra.

While praising the "consolidation of democracy" in Ivory Coast and Nigeria, Akufo-Addo hit out at leaders clinging to power.

"What is taking place in The Gambia is unfortunate," Akufo-Addo said, referring to longtime ruler Yahya Jammeh who had conceded defeat in last week's election but did a dramatic -- and unexpected -- U-turn on Friday, saying he would challenge the results.

"Our people appreciate and understand and are happy with the values of democracy," said the 72-year-old human rights lawyer, wearing a white collared shirt and his trademark round-rimmed glasses, which he buys in New York.

On the shelves in his home office is a white sculpture of an elephant -- the symbol of his New Patriotic Party (NPP) -- along with books ranging in topics from former British prime minister Tony Blair to pentecostal exorcism.

In his victory speech, Akufo-Addo said the win was the most "humbling moment in my life" and pledged to put Ghana "back on the path of progress and prosperity."

- 'Get Ghana working again' -

An apparent collapse of support in the battleground central region of Ghana seemed to have doomed Mahama's ruling New Democratic Congress (NDC) party, which lost with 44.4 percent of vote.

During the heated campaign, Mahama had criss-crossed the country inaugurating splashy infrastructure projects, earning the nickname "general commissioner" for the number of ribbon-cutting ceremonies he attended.

But soaring debt, high inflation and a weak cedi currency were ultimately too much to swallow for the frustrated electorate.

In 2015, Mahama was forced to go to the International Monetary Fund for a $918 million bailout.

This year Ghana grew at its slowest pace -- around 3.3 percent -- in over two decades.

Akufo-Addo had promised to act quickly to stop a "borrowing binge" that "mortgaged our future".

Underscoring his commitment to the economy and creating jobs, he appointed Mahamudu Bawumia, a former deputy governor of the Bank of Ghana to be his running mate.

Describing the economic climate as a "difficult situation," Akufo-Addo admitted "there is a hanging debt of considerable proportions."

In his election manifesto, he laid out a plan to restore economic stability and encourage investment by slashing the corporate tax rate and abolishing taxes on everything from real estate sales to domestic flight tickets.

"The measures that can stimulate agricultural production, the measures that can stimulate industrial activity and manufacturing, this is the main focus," Akufo-Addo said, promising to "get Ghana working again."

- 'Joyous moment' -

Ghanaians seem thrilled to give him the chance.

Outside his house, hundreds of supporters were still celebrating his election in the streets, blowing horns and dancing.

For many, Akufo-Addo's victory validates Ghana's democracy.

"It's a joyous moment," said Daniel Ofori, 28, who was wearing a big red, white and blue NPP flag as a cape.

"It's been happy for us because our democracy is growing and is maturing," Ofori said.

"This has been the most free and fair election in our country."