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Niger heads to polls in search of first democratic transition

Niger heads to polls in search of first democratic transition

A peaceful transfer of power would be a milestone for Niger,which has experienced four coups since gaining independence from France in 1960

Niger votes in an election onSunday that is expected to lead to the first transfer of power between two democratically elected presidents in a countryreeling from Islamist violence.

Former Interior Minister Mohamed Bazoum, the ruling party’scandidate, is the overwhelming favourite to succeed President Mahamadou Issoufou, who is stepping down after two five-year terms leading the largely desert country of 23 million.

Mr. Bazoum, 60, has promised continuity with Mr. Issoufou’s policies, while also vowing to clean up pervasive corruption.

“If I am lucky enough to win this election, you will havechosen someone who is ready from day one,” he said in a campaignvideo.

Niger faces twin security crises. It has suffered repeatedattacks near its western borders with Mali and Burkina Faso frommilitants linked to al Qaeda and Islamic State. Near its southeastern border with Nigeria it faces attacks from Boko Haram. Hundreds of soldiers and civilians have been killed inthe last year alone.

The economic situation is also critical. More than 40% of the population lives in extreme poverty, and the COVID-19 pandemic has slowed growth to a crawl, compounding the effectsof climate change and low prices for top export uranium.

Mr. Bazoum faces 29 other candidates, who will hope to force a second round by denying him an outright majority of the vote.

Hama Amadou, who finished runner-up in the last election,was barred from running because of a criminal conviction,leaving the opposition without an obvious figurehead.

But last week, Mr. Amadou’s party called on its supporters to turn out for Mahamane Ousmame, who was president from 1993-1996.

“After my candidate was disqualified, I didn’t have themotivation to come out and vote,” said Ali Hamma, an Amadou supporter. “But with the new instructions, I am going to vote.”

A peaceful transfer of power would be a milestone for Niger,which has experienced four coups since gaining independence from France in 1960.

It would also stand in stark contrast to Ivory Coast and Guinea, whose presidents this year used constitutional changesto extend their tenures to three terms, raising fears of a democratic backslide in West Africa.

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