* Election on Dec. 7
* President Mahama faces seven challengers
* Stakes increased by Ghana's rising oil output
By Kwasi Kpodo
ACCRA, Dec 5 Ghana's cliff-hanger presidential
election on Friday will test the country's reputation as a
bulwark for democracy and economic growth in Africa's so-called
The stakes are high with rivals jousting for a chance to
oversee a boom in oil revenues that has brought hopes of
increased development in a country where the average person
makes less than $4 a day.
"Ghana getting it right again will provide real mentorship
and a signal for others," Emmanuel Gyimah-Boadi, director of
Accra-based consultancy Centre for Democratic Development, said.
Ghana is expected to keep up growth of about 8 percent next
year and is increasingly cited by investment bankers and fund
managers as an example of Africa's rise in contrast to the woes
of Europe and the United States.
President John Dramani Mahama - who replaced the late John
Atta Mills after his death from an illness in July - will face
top opposition candidate Nana Akufo-Addo of the New Patriotic
Party (NPP), and six others.
Opinion polls point to a tight race between the two main
candidates, raising the prospect of a repeat of the near
deadlock in 2008 elections, in which Mills defeated Akufo-Addo
with a margin of fewer than 100,000 votes.
U.S. President Barack Obama called Ghana a "model of
democracy in Africa" for stepping back from the brink during
those polls, when others might have tipped into conflict.
A disputed election in neighbouring Ivory Coast in 2010
triggered a civil war. Other regional neighbours Mali and Guinea
Bissau have been thrown them into chaos by military coups.
Ghana, by contrast, has seen five constitutional transfers
of power since its last coup in 1981. The years of peace - along
with its rich natural resources - have made it a darling for
THE SMELL OF MONEY
This election has been coloured by hopes of greater
prosperity as output rises from Tullow Oil's offshore
Jubilee field, where production began less than two years ago.
Rival billboards in Ghana's sprawling capital, Accra, boil
down the campaigns: Nana Akufo-Addo is "The man to trust with
Ghana's money". Mahama, meanwhile, is "trusted, decisive and
action-driven towards a better Ghana".
"The elections in 2008 were about the smell of oil - now in
2012, it is about the reality of oil," Gyimah-Boadi said.
Tullow's production is expected to rise to 120,000 barrels
per day in 2013 from between 60,000 and 90,000 bpd this year
while more big deposits have been found.
Akufo-Addo says he would use the oil wealth to pay for free
primary and secondary education.
Mahama, meanwhile, says he aims to put Ghana on the path to
becoming a middle-income country with a per capita income of
$2,300 by 2017 - double that in 2009. He dismisses criticism
that the oil industry has created few jobs for Ghanaians.
The World Bank is upbeat on Ghana, expecting growth to be
driven by investment in resources, infrastructure and
agriculture in a country that also produces cocoa and gold.
But in a country where campaign messages rarely influence
voting choices, many believe more than half of the 14 million
voters will cast their ballot based on ethnic and social
affiliation, or regionalism.
Twenty-seven year old Jacob Djaba, a car-wash attendant in
the Osu suburb of Accra, said he and friends would vote for
Mahama, "our kinsman". Mahama is from northern Ghana while his
National Democratic Congress (NDC) party has also traditionally
done well in parts of eastern Ghana.
"He is our own and our thumbs belong to him," Djaba said, to
cheers from three colleagues nearby.
Papa Nkansah, a coconut vendor, said he normally voted for
the NPP, whose heartland of support is among the Ashanti people
with roots in the ancient kingdom of the same name.
"I like Mahama ... but again something tells me I must keep
to the Ashanti tradition," Nkansah, 31, said as he rammed a
sharp cutlass through a coconut pod at a construction side in
Accra's Ridge neighbourhood.
In an effort to smooth over ethnic tensions that have
bubbled over into scuffles in recent weeks, presidential
candidates signed a peace pact last week. Mass prayers have been
organised in churches and mosques.
"There is no doubt Ghana is an icon of political stability
on the continent, but there is need to put in place early
warning signs against potential electoral violence," head of the
national peace council Emmanuel Asante said.
(Writing by Richard Valdmanis; Editing by Matthew Tostevin)