Niger hopes to make history on Sunday as the election sets its course for its very first peaceful transfer of power despite a furious Islamist uprising and economic misery.
The world’s poorest country with an important UN benchmark, the Sahel nation, has never had two elected leaders hand over power since independence from France 60 years ago – the latest coup was just a decade ago.
The man who has been in charge since then, President Mahamadou Issoufou, has won high marks for announcing that he will hand over the baton to his elected successor.
Two other nations in West Africa, Guinea and Côte d’Ivoire, have been shaken by violence this year after their heads of state pushed through changes to the constitution.
They declared that their counters at the presidential borders had been reset, which allowed them to offer a third incantation in the government – a move that triggered bloody protests.
“My most ardent desire is to hand over power in 2021 to a democratically elected successor,” Issoufou said.
“This will be my best achievement – it will be a first in our country’s history.”
French President Emmanuel Macron has praised Issoufou, describing him as an “example of democracy”, while his foreign minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, declared that “the quality of the elections (December 27) will be a benchmark for the whole of Africa.”
Others have sounded more skeptical, pointing to the dominant role played by the army, which in 2010 forced out a very popular president, Mamadou Tandja, who had his eyes on a third term.
Issoufou “does not offer a third term because he does not want it, but because he does not have the choice,” said Bounty Diallo, a former soldier and professor at the University of Niamey.
Another shortcoming in the rosy picture is the absence of a prominent opposition candidate.
Former Prime Minister Hama Amadou, 70, was banned last month from questioning the vote on the grounds that in 2017 he was given a 12-month term for alleged human trafficking – a charge he says was false. In March, he received presidential pardon when he saw his sentence.
Mohamed Bazoum, 60, a former interior and foreign affairs minister who is Issoufou’s appointed successor, is the frontrunner on Sunday after a campaign dominated by the security issue.
Niger is being hammered by jihadists from nearby Mali and from Nigeria, the cradle of the decade-old uprising launched by Boko Haram, and by armed gangs.
Last year, more than 250 people died and there were more than 250 kidnappings, according to UN figures.
Jihadist attacks have displaced hundreds of thousands of people and brought them closer and closer to the capital, Niamey.
In August, six French tourists and their two Nigerian guides were slaughtered in Koure National Park, just 60 kilometers (37 miles) from the city.
On December 12, 34 people were massacred in a Boko Haram attack in the southeastern region of Diffa ahead of repeatedly delayed municipal and regional elections.
“Our country is huge and surrounded by areas of uncertainty,” Bazoum told French radio station RFI last month.
“This requires more resources, especially more troops … but without making us sacrifice what is necessary, which is the education and prosperity of our people.”
Niger was ranked 189th, the lowest ranking of countries ranked in the 2020 UN Human Development Index.
About 42 percent of the population lived on less than $ 1.90 (1.56 euros) a day last year, according to the World Bank, while nearly one-fifth of its growing population of 23 million relied on food aid.
The army wants to double the number of soldiers, but military spending already accounts for a fifth of the state budget. The country also hosts US and French air bases, which are important facilities in the fight against jihadism in the Sahel.