Voters go to the polls to begin Niger’s first democratic transition

Niger will vote on Sunday in the second round of a presidential election expected to usher in the first democratic transfer of power since the West African nation gained independence from France in 1960.

The ruling party’s candidate Mohamed Bazoum is seen by many as the favorite after leading in the first round on December 27 with 39.3% of the vote. He opposes former President Mahamane Ousmane, who received 17%.

Bazoum, a 61-year-old politician who had held several top positions in the governments of outgoing President Mahamadou Issoufou, including the foreign and interior ministries, is supported by the third and fourth candidates in the first round.

Bazoum has promised to continue Issoufou’s policy, which makes security a point of contact when the country is fighting insurgency, while at the same time introducing a policy to renew the economy.

Ousmane, 71, was Niger’s first democratically elected president and was thrown out in a military coup in 1996. He has been supported by a dozen smaller parties and candidates for the first round. He has promised to bring about change and tackle corruption.

The Sahel nation of about 24 million is one of the poorest in the world and is struggling with recurring droughts and destructive floods. The coronavirus pandemic has weighed on its economy, while weak prices for its main export, uranium, have hit revenues.

The International Monetary Fund expects the Niger economy to recover to pre-pandemic levels, with growth of over 6% this year after falling by 1.2% by 2020.

“Continuity is better,” said Boukari Hassane, a 42-year-old official who added that he would like Bazoum to complete development programs launched under Issoufou.

Niamey-based political analyst Elhadj Idi Abou said the result of the vote was undecided and turnout was expected to be high given almost 70% turnout in the first round.

The choice was between continuity with Bazoum, or change with Ousmane, he added.

“For me, there is no favorite because this vote is the most open and the result does not depend on alliances but on the citizens. Both candidates have the same chances,” Abou said.

Niger is facing two of Africa’s deadliest uprisings – one near its western border with Mali and Burkina Faso, where militants linked to al-Qaeda and the Islamic State have carried out a series of attacks. An attack on two villages in early January near the Mali border killed 100 people.

Along its southeastern border with Nigeria, attacks by Boko Haram have killed hundreds and displaced thousands.