By Christian Akorlie
ACCRA (Reuters) - Ghana's peaceful presidential election was a rare example of a functioning democracy in Africa and should be a model for the continent, African leaders and voters said on Sunday.
Much attention in Africa and elsewhere was focussed on the Ghanaian vote after a year of political crises, many of them violent, tarnished Africa's democratic credentials.
Opposition candidate John Atta Mills was declared the winner on Saturday after the closely fought election in the gold and cocoa exporter was settled by a run-off.
"John Atta Mills' victory and the conduct of the people of Ghana provides a rare example of democracy at work in Africa," Kenya's prime minister Raila Odinga said in a statement.
While the contest raised tensions and some violent incidents were reported, international observers say the vote was mostly peaceful. The conduct of the election contrasted with many other African countries, where democracy was battered in 2008.
More than 1,000 people were killed in post-election violence in Kenya at the start of the year and in Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe and opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai have been deadlocked for months over a power-sharing agreement after disputed elections.
Mauritania's first freely elected leader was overthrown in a military coup in August and army officers in mineral-rich Guinea took power after the death of long-serving President Lansana Conte in December.
The continent's biggest economy, South Africa, is likely to go to the polls in March in what analysts expect will be its most tense vote since the end of apartheid in 1994, after a power struggle split the ruling African National Congress last year.
"(The Ghanaian election) bears testimony to the respect for democracy and good governance in Africa," South African President Kgalema Motlanthe said. "The people of Ghana ... have through the ballot paper showed their appreciation for democracy," he said in a statement.
Ghana's neighbour and fellow cocoa producer Ivory Coast again postponed presidential elections last year and analysts say they are unlikely to be held before the end of 2009 due to delays in disarmament and voter registration.
"In this country, elections are always held in chaos, and it's the strongest who wins," said taxi driver Alpha Kante in Abidjan. "If Ghanaians have voted for a new president without making a fuss, it's good, and we must try to do the same."
Regional powerhouse Nigeria, whose own presidential election result was upheld last month after a legal challenge from defeated candidates, said the Ghanaian experience should be replicated in nearby countries.
"I hope and pray that the spirit with which the election has been fought and won will be nurtured and promoted not only in Ghana, but also in West Africa," said Musiliu Obanikoro, Nigeria's High Commissioner to Ghana, in a message to Atta Mills.
Ghanaians hailed the vote and said Africa was right to look to it as evidence that democracy can work.
"The election shows that Ghana is a shining example of democracy on a continent that is struggling to get recognition," said Richard Nunoo, a mechanic in the capital Accra.
(Additional reporting by Helen Nyambura-Mwaura in Nairobi; Ange Aboa in Abidjan and Nick Tattersall in Lagos; Writing by Daniel Magnowski; Editing by Janet Lawrence)