NIAMEY: Niger’s outgoing president Mahamadou Issoufou casts his ballot at a polling station yesterday. – AFP

NIAMEY: Voters went to the polls in Niger yesterday 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 are registered to vote for the ballot for presidency, which coincides with legislative elections.

“I expect the Nigerien president to put security, health, progress and democracy first,” Aboubakar Saleh, a 37-year-old launderer, told AFP in Niamey without revealing who he voted for. Issaka Soumana, a 52-year-old lorry driver, said he wanted change. “Niger is not moving forward. Our country must rise,” he said, brandishing his thumb stained with ink 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 said after voting at the city hall in Niamey. The frontrunner in the 30-strong field is his designated successor, Mohamed Bazoum, 60, a former interior and foreign minister. “It is a great pride that this date of December 27 has been respected,” Bazoum said after voting. 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.

Overshadowed by insecurity
Polling stations are scheduled to close at 7:00 pm but are instructed to close later in case of delays to 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. A second round, if necessary, will be held on February 20. Campaigning has been overshadowed by insecurity-Niger is being battered by jihadists on its southwestern border with Mali, and 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.

Army deployed
On Monday, seven troops and 11 suspected jihadists died in an ambush in the southwestern region of Tillaberi, the government said on Thursday. On December 12, 34 villagers were massacred in Toumour, in the southeastern region of Diffa, on the eve of municipal and regional elections that had been repeatedly delayed because of poor security.

The army has been massively deployed for yesterday’s vote, the authorities say. “Sporadic attacks will not prevent the staging of the elections,” a spokesman said on Thursday. The attack in Toumour triggered three days of national mourning, but the elections the following day went ahead smoothly, officials say. – AFP