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Niger stages historic elections despite jihadist attacks

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Voters went to the polls in Niger on Sunday for an election that could seal a first peaceful handover between elected presidents, against the backdrop of a bloody jihadist insurgency.

The West African country, unstable since gaining independence from France 60 years ago, is ranked the world’s poorest country according to the UN’s Human Development Index.

Around 7.4 million people were registered to vote in the presidential ballot, which coincided with legislative polls.

“I expect the Nigerien president to put security, health, progress and democracy first,” Aboubakar Saleh, a 37-year-old launderer, told AFP in the capital Niamey without revealing his choice among the 30 candidates.

Issaka Soumana, a 52-year-old lorry driver, said he wanted change.

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“Niger is not moving forward. Our country must rise,” he said, brandishing his ink-stained thumb to show he had cast his ballot.

President Mahamadou Issoufou, who was elected in 2011 after the country’s last coup in 2010, is voluntarily stepping down after two five-year terms.

“It is a special day for Niger which will experience for the first time in its history a democratic transition,” Issoufou, 68, said after voting at the Niamey city hall.

He noted that Sunday’s vote was the first in which he did not take part in three decades in the predominantly Muslim country.

At some polling stations in Niamey, voters saw to it that men and women formed separate queues to vote.

The frontrunner is Issoufou’s designated successor, Mohamed Bazoum, 60, a former interior and foreign minister.

“It is a great source of pride that this date of December 27 has been respected,” Bazoum said after voting.

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He campaigned on promises of emphasising security and education, especially for young girls in a country with the world’s highest fertility rate — 7.6 children per woman.

‘One coup after another’
Taxi driver Saddam Mani Kane said he voted for Bazoum, saying: “Before, it was one coup after another. Now democracy will continue. We must continue (Issoufou’s) policies.”

Bazoum’s main rival, former prime minister Hama Amadou, was barred from contesting the vote on the grounds that in 2017 he was handed a 12-month jail term for baby trafficking — a charge he says was bogus.

Among the candidates is Ibrahim Yacouba, a former foreign minister who came in fifth in 2016. He ruled out a first-round victory, telling AFP by telephone: “The level of frustration among Nigeriens negates any chance of a knock-out blow. There will be a second round.”

“This campaign has been massively corrupted by the ruling party’s money,” he said after voting in Birnin-Lokoyo, his village in the southwest. “I’m very concerned because this… could affect the results.”

Other candidates include former presidents Mahamane Ousmane and Salou Djibo, former prime minister Seini Oumarou, former acting PM Albade Abouba and seven former ministers.

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Their average age is over 60, compared with a national average of around 16.

Campaigning was overshadowed by insecurity — Niger is being battered by jihadists on its southwestern border with Mali as well as its southeastern frontier with Nigeria.

A jihadist insurgency that has spilt across borders in Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger claimed some 4,000 lives last year from jihadist violence and ethnic bloodshed stirred by Islamists, according to the UN.

In Niger itself, hundreds have died in the past five years, and hundreds of thousands have fled their homes.

The economy, already fragile, has suffered devastating blows.

Around 42 percent of Nigeriens lived last year on under $1.90 (1.56 euros) per day, according to the World Bank, while nearly a fifth of its surging population of 23 million relied on food aid.

The army was massively deployed for Sunday’s vote, the authorities said.

Polling stations closed 7 pm (1800 GMT), except those staying open to compensate for delays, so that they ensure 11 hours of voting.

Partial results for the presidential election are expected to be announced on Monday, with final counts on Wednesday or Thursday.

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