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Niger voters pick president in return to civilian rule

Niger polls to open for the return of civilian rule

AFP , Thursday 10 Mar 2011
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Voters in Niger go to the polls Saturday to elect a president as the uranium-rich west African country returns to civilian rule one year after a military coup and amid rising Al Qaeda-linked violence.

The run-off election will pit veteran opposition leader Mahamadou Issoufou, 59, against former prime minister Seini Oumarou, the 60-year-old leader of the party of ex-president Mamadou Tandja, ousted by the junta in February 2010.

Issoufou, a longtime opponent of Tandja's 10-year rule, is considered the favourite after taking the lead in the first round vote on January 31 with 36 percent of the vote, compared to 23 percent for second place Oumarou.

Niger's ruling junta vowed to usher in civilian government after it took power last year to end a crisis triggered by Tandja's attempts to extend his rule beyond the constitutional limits. No junta member was a candidate in the election.

Social Democratic Party leader Issoufou has strengthened his candidacy by forging alliances, especially with Hama Amadou, another former premier under Tandja who garnered 19 percent in the first round vote.

"With our allies, we count on 70 percent of the votes" for "an unequivocal victory," Issoufou has said.

His rival Oumarou, however, with his National Movement for the Development of Society has countered that the elections "are not won in advance".

During the largely peaceful campaign, both candidates have promised to dissolve parliament and organise legislative elections for a more representative assembly in the vast, landlocked country on the edge of the Sahara desert.

They have also expressed similar goals for the impoverished nation that has become a base for Al Qaeda-linked militants. They have vowed to tackle the poverty that afflicts some 60 percent of the population, protect against the cyclical food crises, and assure an equitable distribution of the country's wealth from uranium.

The junta chief, General Salou Djibo, has called on the candidates to respect the results of Saturday's run-off poll.

Just this week a "republican pact" was signed by which civilian and military authorities have agreed to respect the country's new constitution adopted at the end of last year to guarantee stability in the former French colony.

Since independence in 1960 Niger has been wracked by coups and faced a Tuareg rebellion in the north of the country.

And in recent years the Sahel country has become one of the bases for Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), which has been responsible for the kidnappings and killings of Westerners in the region.

In January, two young French men were abducted by AQIM militants in central Niamey and later killed during a failed rescue attempt by France in neighbouring Mali.

Late last month three hostages kidnapped last September at a mining site in northern Niger were released, but four French nationals are still being held.

Meanwhile, Tandja has been detained since the coup amid accusations of financial wrongdoing.

A probe by a commission against economic and financial crime set up by the junta implicated the former president, alongside more than 2,000 other people, in alleged fraud.

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