Niger opposition rejects 'sham' run-off over low turnout

Patrick Fort and Boureima Hama
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Niger's Independent Election Commission (CENI) members check the results of the presidential elections on March 21, 2016 at the Palais des Congres in Niamey

Niger's Independent Election Commission (CENI) members check the results of the presidential elections on March 21, 2016 at the Palais des Congres in Niamey (AFP Photo/Issouf Sanogo)

Niamey (AFP) - Niger's opposition on Monday slammed the final round of the country's presidential elections as a "sham" due to a low voter turnout, challenging any attempts to claim victory by incumbent President Mahamadou Issoufou.

Voter participation was a crucial issue in Sunday's vote following the opposition's boycott call and the dramatic evacuation of Issoufou's challenger, Hama Amadou, suddenly flown from jail to Paris last week for medical treatment.

"The people of Niger have massively rejected this sham of an election," said the COPA 2016 opposition coalition.

It claimed the voter turnout was a mere 11 percent nationwide, against the official estimate of 56 percent.

"The people responded positively to the boycott appeal," the coalition statement said, calling on Issoufou to "draw the consequences of the people's will."

The election pitted 64-year-old Issoufou, a former mining engineer nicknamed "the Lion", against Amadou, 66, a former premier and parliament speaker known as "the Phoenix" for his ability to make political comebacks.

Issoufou, who won 48.4 percent in the first February 21 round, looked likely to clinch a second five-term against absent Amadou, who had garnered 17.7 percent the first time round.

The National Independent Electoral Commission (CENI) could announce definitive election results on Tuesday, according to a source close to CENI.

"Fundamentally, the people didn't vote," said Ousseini Salatou, spokesman for COPA, accusing CENI of alleged voting fraud.

"We have one objective: to show that 48 percent figure (for Issoufou) in the first round was false and that he doesn't have legitimacy," Salatou said.

COPA 2016 stopped short of calling on supporters to take to the streets in protest, but urged them "to remain vigilant and determined in order to turn this sanction against the regime into a victory for the people."

The electoral commission, which has five days to proclaim the winner, began releasing initial partial results from the run-off round Monday giving Issoufou 92 percent of votes cast.

Salatou called CENI's figures "a national shame".

- 'Niamey is not Niger' -

Voter turnout in the capital Niamey, an Amadou stronghold, appeared far lower, AFP reporters said, than the 66.6 percent turnout in February, when queues formed outside polling stations.

But Interior Minister Hassoumi Massaoudou on Sunday brushed aside the lack of voter enthusiasm in the capital, saying "Niamey is not Niger" and that national figures were "comparable or slightly lower" than in February.

Addressing reporters on Sunday, Issoufou said: "We should avoid pointless quarrels. The winner, whoever he is, must think about bringing Nigeriens together beyond his own camp, because we face significant challenges."

Amadou was forced to campaign from behind bars after being detained on November 14 on baby-trafficking charges he says were concocted to keep him out of the race.

The European Union said Monday it had noticed a drop in voter participation in the run-off and that the voting "had taken place in an unprecedented context, with one of the candidates not being able to campaign".

Issoufou, who took office in 2011, campaigned on pledges to bring prosperity to the desolate but uranium-rich country and prevent further attacks from jihadists in its vast remote north, and from Nigeria's Boko Haram Islamists to the south.

Just three days before the vote, Niger suffered two jihadist attacks -- one in the west claimed by Al-Qaeda's north African affiliate which killed three gendarmes and another by Boko Haram in which a senior army officer died.

The poor West African state, where three-quarters of the population live on less than $2 a day, has only had a multi-party democracy since 1990.

The run-up to the first-round presidential vote was marred by violence between supporters of the rival camps, the arrest of several leading political personalities and the government's announcement that it had foiled a coup bid.