Niger’s voters are casting their ballots in the second round of the country’s presidential elections, after none of the 28 candidates won an absolute majority in December’s vote.
Former foreign affairs minister Mohamed Bazoum, who received about 39 per cent of the vote in the first round, is running against former president Mahamane Ousmane, who won nearly 17 per cent of the vote.
The winner of Sunday’s vote will succeed President Mahamadou Issoufou who is stepping down after serving two terms, in accordance with Niger’s constitution.
Issoufou’s decision to respect the constitution has been widely hailed and paves the way for Niger’s first peaceful, democratic transfer of power since its independence from France in 1960.
The West African nation has seen four coups.
After voting at the city hall of Niamey, the capital, Issoufou told journalists he was proud of Nigeriens for their political maturity and for setting a strong democratic example.
“I’m proud to be the first democratically elected president in our history to transfer power to another democratically elected president. It’s a major event in the political life of our country,” said Issoufou.
Issoufou’s chosen successor is Bazoum, 71, a longtime Cabinet minister who is from Niger’s small ethnic Arab minority.
After voting, Bazoum said he had just spent several weeks in the country’s interior visiting villages in hopes that the vote would “take place in a calm, disciplined and friendly atmosphere”.
Niger’s next president will have to deal with major problems, including rising attacks linked to Islamic extremists.
In January at least 100 people were killed when extremists attacked two villages near the border with Mali. Thousands of people have been killed despite a large presence of regional and international troops.
“(There’s) a significant risk that extremist groups will launch attacks to disrupt the poll,” said Alexandre Raymakers, senior Africa analyst at global risk consultancy Verisk Maplecroft.
A peaceful transition of power would be a strong sign to western countries to continue supporting Niger’s counter-terrorism operations, Raymakers said.
The candidates are trying to entice voters through various campaign promises.
A teacher by training, Bazoum, from the ruling Nigerien Party for Democracy and Socialism, has promised to build boarding schools for girls to encourage them to remain in school longer.
He said this would help reduce child marriage in a country with many teenage pregnancies.
But peace is what locals say they really want from the country’s next leader.
“The new president needs to focus on our security at the borders and in our cities,” said Abdou Razak, a resident of Niamey.