(Adds Mills quotes)
By Kwasi Kpodo
ACCRA, Jan 7 (Reuters) - Ghana swore in opposition leader John Atta Mills as president on Wednesday in a democratic transfer of power that won plaudits from around the world for one of Africa’s most attractive investment destinations.
President John Kufuor stepped down after serving the maximum two four-year terms in office in the West African state. His party’s chosen successor lost a cliffhanger presidential election run-off to Mills last week by less than 0.5 percent.
Many thousands of people packed Independence Square by the Atlantic seafront in Accra for the ceremony. It was on the same scale as the huge gathering that greeted then-U.S. President Bill Clinton when he visited Ghana more than 10 years ago.
“This is the dawn of a new era for change, for a better Ghana,” said Mills, a pro-business centre-left politician.
Dressed in a wrap of local kente cloth woven in Ghana’s national colours of red, green and yellow, Mills was sworn in by the country’s chief justice.
He then raised aloft the symbolic State Sword, representing government authority, to cheers from the crowd, and a military unit fired off a booming 21-gun salute.
Several African leaders including President Umaru Yar‘Adua of regional heavyweight Nigeria were present.
“What I am seeing here is just unbelievable. The massive crowd and the yearning for unity, it is just marvellous,” said 53-year-old engineer John Chapman, a Ghanaian who lives in Boston, Massachusetts, but came home for the ceremony.
The election, which saw isolated violence but no major trouble, was welcomed as a boost for democracy in Africa after electoral chaos and bloodshed in Kenya, Zimbabwe and elsewhere.
Mills, who had lost the previous two presidential elections to Kufuor, faces an uphill task to steer Ghana’s promising but indebted economy through a world financial crisis and to seek political consensus after a bruising electoral campaign.
“Fortunately, Mills himself appears to have recognised the fact that the nation is somewhat divided, as reflected in the results of the presidential runoff,” said Professor Emmanuel Gyimah-Boadi, director of the Centre for Democratic Development.
“There are also immediate economic challenges. Both parties had made a lot of promises and the pressure to redeem them could lead to a hike in public spending, and that has implications for the economy,” Gyimah-Boadi told Reuters in Accra.
Mills pledged to create jobs, invest in Ghana’s people, ensure accountable government and promote economic growth.
“Our success or failure in government should be measured by the extent to which we achieve these goals,” he said.
“We will ensure that we listen to the people and address their concerns,” Mills said.
“There will be no room for political vendettas, and there will be no room for witch-hunting, but we will make sure justice is administered,” he added.
In one of his last acts, Kufuor pardoned several jailed opposition party figures on Tuesday in a sign of reconciliation.
Earlier, the new parliament took office and elected Ghana’s first woman speaker since the former Gold Coast colony gained independence from Britain in 1957. No party holds an outright majority in parliament, which was elected on Dec. 7.
Ghana was the first sub-Saharan African colony to achieve independence and became a potent symbol of African liberation.
But founding President Kwame Nkrumah’s pan-Africanist dreams collapsed as Ghana entered decades of on-off army rule that only ended when former coup leader Jerry Rawlings introduced democracy in the 1990s and handed power to Kufuor in 2001.
Kufuor has supervised the transformation of the world’s No. 2 cocoa grower and Africa’s second biggest gold miner into one of the region’s most attractive investment destinations. The country is due to become an oil producer in late 2010.
However, overspending and allegations of corruption -- including the implication of senior officials in drug trafficking -- have tarnished his record.
Mills will move into a lavish, newly-built presidential palace, Jubilee House, making him the first president in Ghana’s history not to work out of Christianborg Castle, a former slave fort built by Danish colonialists.
For FACTBOXES click on code in square brackets:
Mills: [ID:nL7623692] Kufuor: [ID:nL7446887]
Country: [ID:nL7623256] Timeline: [ID:nL7379791] (Writing by Alistair Thomson; Editing by Pascal Fletcher and Peter Millership)