By Kwasi Kpodo and Richard Valdmanis
ACCRA (Reuters) - Ghanaians waited in long lines to vote on Friday in presidential elections they hope will entrench the country's reputation for stable democracy in a part of the world better known for civil wars, coups and corruption.
The start of voting was delayed in some polling stations in Accra due to a lack of ballots and ballot boxes, but election observers said many of the problems had been resolved by midday and that voting was mostly smooth nationwide.
"I am voting for peace, unity and development," said Michael Akpabli, a 61 year-old man recovering from a broken hip in a line of people clutching their voting cards at a polling station in the sprawling seaside capital Accra.
"I am voting for someone who will be able to translate our dreams into reality," he said.
Many will be hoping Ghana's recent surge in oil revenues, which has yet to make much difference to the wider population, will fulfill such hopes for a better future.
President John Dramani Mahama - who replaced the late John Atta Mills after his death from an illness in July - faces rival Nana Akufo-Addo of the New Patriotic Party (NPP), who has vowed to provide free education and root out corruption.
Opinion polls point to a tight race, raising the prospect of a repeat of the near deadlock in 2008 elections, in which Mills defeated Akufo-Addo with a margin of less than 1 percent after a run-off. A second round will be held in three weeks if nobody gets a majority of the vote on Friday.
Voters will also elect a parliament, where Mahama's National Democratic Congress (NDC) has enjoyed a slim majority.
Despite fears of trouble after the 2008 vote, Ghana pulled back from the brink. A disputed election in neighboring Ivory Coast in 2010, by contrast, led to civil war, and regional neighbors Mali and Guinea-Bissau have had recent coups.
"These elections are important not just to Ghana, but for the growing number of states and actors seeking to benefit from increasing confidence in Africa," said Alex Vines, Africa Research Director at Chatham House.
After casting his ballot in his native Kyebi, in Ghana's east, Akufo-Addo said the outcome of the vote was "in the hands of the Ghanaian people", adding he had seen no signs of fraud.
"So far, from what I have seen here, the process is very orderly and very efficient," he told reporters. Mahama was due to vote in the afternoon in his home town in Bole in the north.
In a radio address late on Thursday, Mahama urged Ghanaians to remain peaceful. "In all this, let us remember that Ghana is bigger and more important than any of us," he said.
Some voters faced long waits to cast their vote.
"I came here at 2 a.m. and now it is 10 a.m., and we are still waiting for the station to open," said Owusu Andrews, a 42 year-old plumber. "We are hungry, and we are tired."
An army truck loaded with ballot boxes and guarded by soldiers later arrived, as voters and election workers swarmed towards it with a mix of relief and anger.
Ghana Election Commissioner Kwadwo Afari-Gyan told Reuters that polls would stay open until all ballots had been cast.
The stakes are high, with rivals competing for a chance to oversee a boom in oil revenues that has brought hopes of increased development in a country where the average person still makes less than $4 a day.
Ghana, also a major cocoa and gold producer, is expected to keep up growth of about 8 percent next year and is increasingly cited by investment bankers and fund managers for its growth, in contrast to the woes of Europe and the United States.
Across the capital Accra, evidence of the resource wealth abounds - brightly lit multi-storey buildings, cranes looming over new construction sites, well-paved roads, and billboards advertising banks, cars and mobile phones.
But many Ghanaians have been left out. An influx of people from rural parts of the country, hoping for jobs in the capital, has created a sprawl of outlying shanty towns and swelled the ranks of the homeless on the city's streets.
Akufo-Addo, a trained lawyer and son of a former Ghanaian president, has criticized the ruling party for the slow pace of job creation and the fight against poverty, and says he would use oil money to pay for free primary and secondary education.
Mahama, meanwhile, says he aims to boost Ghana's per capita annual income to $2,300 by 2017 - double that in 2009.
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, social or regional affiliation.
(Additional reporting by Christian Akorlie; Writing by Richard Valdmanis; Editing by David Lewis and Will Waterman)