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Sat Jul 02 05:48:08 CAT 2016

Niger's 'Lion' president seeks re-election in tense vote

Boureima HAMA, Patrick FORT | 21 February, 2016 09:45
Niger's President Mahamadou Issoufou. File photo
Image by: AFOLABI SOLTUNDE / REUTERS

Voters in Niger went to the polls Sunday in a presidential election in which the incumbent has promised a "knockout" blow to the opposition, one of whose top candidates is behind bars on baby-trafficking charges.

A vast desert nation blessed with an abundance of uranium, gold, coal and oil but reputedly the poorest on the planet, Niger is electing a head of state, as well as a new parliament, with outgoing President Mahamadou Issoufou hoping for a second five-year term.

A total of 7.5 million people are eligible to vote at 25,000 polling stations across the arid country on the edge of the Sahara Desert. The results are expected within five days.

In an interview with AFP on Thursday, Issoufou said he was "absolutely" confident of victory and predicted a runoff second-round vote would not be needed, pointing to his campaign slogan "Promises met".

Issoufou said he had met his pledges on growth and infrastructure, while shoring up security in the face of attacks by jihadists from neighbouring Nigeria, Mali and Libya.

Known as the "Zaki" or "lion" in Hausa, the majority language in Niger, the 63-year-old mathematician and mining engineer turned politician, faces a total of 14 rivals including a particularly tough challenge from two former prime ministers and an ex-president.

Should he fail to win a first-round victory, his main rivals, who have accused him of planning to rig the result, have struck a deal to back whoever scores highest amongst them for the second round.

Security was tight with security forces on patrol across the country, the south-east of which has been plagued by attacks by Boko Haram jihadists from neighbouring Nigeria.

"There is no such thing as zero risk but we are are working to uphold security on election day," Interior Minister Hassoumi Massaoudou said ahead of the ballot.

Heading the opposition pack is 66-year-old Hama Amadou, who is campaigning from behind bars after being arrested in November on his return from exile in France over his alleged role in a baby-trafficking scandal.

Amadou, a former premier and parliament speaker, heads the Nigerien Democratic Movement (NDM) whose members were tear-gassed by police earlier this month after gathering in their thousands to support their man, known as "the Phoenix" for his ability to rise from the ashes.

Among the other candidates are Seyni Oumarou, of the National Movement for the Society of Development (NMSD), a runner-up to Issoufou in the 2011 presidential race, and Niger's first-ever democratically-elected president, Mahamane Ousmane, 66, who is making his fourth bid to step back into the job since his 1993 election.

Defence remains a top budget priority in Niger, with the remote north threatened by jihadist groups operating out of Mali and Libya while the southeast tries to fend off Boko Haram.

In December, the government said it had foiled an attempted military coup. Twelve soldiers and a civilian were arrested over the incident.

The threat of unrest hangs over the vote, with some opposition supporters threatening a general strike if Issoufou is declared victorious at the first round.

Tensions edged higher after Niger's top court approved a controversial plan to allow voters cast their ballots without identity papers, sparking an opposition outcry on the eve of the vote.

The proposal, submitted by the government, allows people to vote without any ID as long as they are accompanied by two people who can vouch for their identity.

Moussa Tchangari, a leading civil society and opposition figure who heads "Alternative Espace Citoyen", a rights and development group, said he feared violence.

"Everyone is afraid the outcome could be exceptionally serious," he said.

Like Tchangari, traditional leaders and religious groups have also issued calls for calm.

Niger, where multi-party democracy dates only to 1990, has a history of grinding poverty and military coups.

Three quarters of the country's 18 million people survive on less than two dollars a day and desertification, driven by climate change, is pushing rural dwellers into towns.

The UN expects two million people will need food aid this year in Niger, which has the world's highest fertility rate and where the average age is just 15.

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