Voters head to polls in Niger for presidential election

President Mahamadou Issoufou competes with 14 candidates in Niger's presidential election as voting commences

Photo by: Reuters
Photo by: Reuters

A voter casts his ballot at a polling station during the country's presidential and legislative elections in Niamey, Niger, February 21, 2016.

Niger began voting in presidential election on Sunday in which President Mahamadou Issoufou is running for a second term with a promise to defeat militant groups threatening the country’s safety and develop the economy which is one of the poorest in the world.

Issoufou competes with 14 candidates including the leader of an opposition coalition, Seyni Oumarou. Critics blame Issoufou for using repression ahead of the vote, including arresting opposition supporters and putting opposition leader Hama Amadou in jail over a charge related to a baby-trafficking ring.

"These are not free and fair elections. We have one presidential candidate in prison who has not been able to campaign. ... The president has manipulated the electorate and used repression," said Amadou Saidou, a voter in Niamey.

Supporters of incarcerated presidential candidate Hama Amadou attend a campaign rally in Niamey, Niger, February 19, 2016.

Security forces patrolled cities and villages in case of unrest or militant attacks. Some voters said they had never experienced such a tense election.

Unidentified armed men attacked two electoral commission vehicles in a rural area about 100 km (60 miles) northwest of the capital, according to security sources, but there were few other reports of trouble.

Boko Haram, which is based in neighbouring Nigeria, has staged a series of attacks in Niger in recent months, forcing authorities to declare a state of emergency in the southeastern region of Diffa.

But Niger prides itself on being peaceful relative to its neighbours Nigeria, Libya and Mali.

"Niger needs strong democratic institutions. I hope that the presidential and legislative elections will permit us to reinforce our institutions," Issoufou said when he cast his ballot at city hall in the capital Niamey.

Voting ended at 7 p.m. (1800 GMT) after a day of steady turnout and it will continue in three provinces on Monday, authorities said. Results are not expected before Tuesday.

Opposition spokesman Ousseini Salatou said on a private television station, Tenere, that the election had been badly organized and he had witnessed cases of voting card fraud. There was no immediate word from election observers.

Niger produces uranium and oil but is ranked last in the UN's Human Development Index and has one of the world's highest fertility rates. The country ranks 114 out of 142 in the 2015 prosperity index run by the UK-based Legatum Institute.

Issoufou, born in 1951, won an election in 2011, a year after a coup. Under election rules, a run-off will be held if no candidate secures an outright victory on Sunday.

His challengers include Amadou, 2011 second-place finisher Oumaru and ex-president Mahamane Ousmane. Around 5,200 candidates also vie for 171 legislative seats on Sunday.

TRTWorld and agencies