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Africa france 24

Niger: High stakes as the world’s poorest nation heads to the polls

© Issouf Sanogo, AFP | Campaign posters in Niamey of outgoing president Mahamadou Issoufou (left) and main opposition candidate Seyni Oumarou, on February 17, 2016

Text by FRANCE 24

Latest update : 2016-02-20

The stakes are higher than ever as Niger, one of the world’s poorest nations, heads to the polls Sunday to pick a new leader. Whoever wins the ballot faces the dual challenge of fending off a food crisis alongside an imminent jihadist threat.

Outgoing President Mahamadou Issofou has pledged to modernise security and defence forces in the West African state if voters grant him a second five-year term, vowing to develop gold and phosphate sites in a bid to improve living standards.

Niger produces uranium and oil but is ranked last in the UN’s Human Development Index and has one of the world’s highest fertility rates, with an average of 7.6 children per woman. Issoufou has said he would promote family planning if he is reelected.

“We will beat them, our adversaries, and with a knock-out blow that will be a historical milestone, since it will be the first time that a candidate will win in the first round,” a confident Issoufou told a rally of up to 30,000 supporters on Thursday.

Meanwhile, the country is suffering from soaring unemployment, especially among the young.

“There are only 4,000 jobs in the country,” Philippe Hugon, an Africa specialist at Paris-based international relations research institute IRIS, said.

“The priority of priorities [of Niger’s future leader] needs to be youth employment in rural and urban areas,” he said.

Issoufou faces 14 candidates, four of them members of an opposition coalition led by Seyni Oumarou, to lead a country that views itself as an island of stability amid neighbours such as Mali, Libya and Nigeria who are confronting Islamist militants.

But Niger is not immune to the terrorist threats. To the south, Nigeria-based Boko Haram has been blamed for a series of suicide bombings and other attacks in recent months, forcing authorities to declare a state of emergency in the region of Diffa. And in the north, the country faces the threat of Sahel jihadists.

The vast desert nation has also been hard hit by a food crisis made worse by a drought.

“Niger is the second or third most vulnerable country in the world in terms of food,” Hugon said. According to the UN, at least two million Nigeriens will need food aid this year.

Tensions run high

In the run-up to the legislative and presidential elections, critics say Issoufou has cracked down on his political rivals, arresting opposition supporters for participating in unregistered protests over the arrest of one of their leaders, and banning a rally last November and in January.

In addition, one major opposition candidate, Hama Amadou, a former parliament head and one-time Issoufou ally, has spent the campaign in jail on charges related to a baby-trafficking ring.

He denies the charges and says they are politically motivated. The government says it respects the rule of law.

In another sign of increased tension, anti-riot forces are stationed at intersections in the capital Niamey and have been conducting night patrols in the wake of what the government said was a coup attempt in December.

‘Voting by testimony’

Issoufou, who was born in 1951, won an election in 2011, a year after a coup. Under election rules, a run-off will be held if no candidate secures an outright victory on Sunday, and opposition leaders acknowledge they face an uphill struggle.

The opposition has warned of the risks of election fraud, however, telling African news website Jeune Afrique that a number of election cards have either been faked or not been distributed at all. In a bid to prevent such irregularities, the Council of State earlier this month gave the green light for voters to participate through “voting by testimony”, meaning they can use witnesses rather than documentation to prove their identity when they cast their ballot.

Issoufou’s challengers include Amadou, 2011 second-place finisher Oumaru and ex-president Mahamane Ousmane. An opposition bloc has been formed to block Issoufou from winning in a second round by supporting his opponent and guarding against fraud.

Around 5,200 candidates will vie for 171 legislative seats on the same day as the presidential race.

(FRANCE 24 with REUTERS)

Date created : 2016-02-20

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