Niger's Issoufou: wily tactician bent on anti-terror drive

Niamey (AFP) - Niger President Mahamadou Issoufou, who is seeking re-election vowing to keep the nation safe from terror attacks, is nicknamed the "Lion" for his political prowess and capacity to pounce at the right time.

The 63-year-old has repeatedly pledged to bring prosperity to the desolate but uranium-rich country and prevent further attacks by Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) fighters based in its vast remote northern deserts.

His twin vows have resonance in the west African nation, where Issoufou has been a key political player since the start of multi-party politics in 1990.

"He's a great tactician and has a sharp mind," said an expert on Niger politics, recalling that Issoufou's chequered past bore testimony to his survival skills.

A mining engineer who worked for French nuclear giant Areva which mines uranium in northern Niger, Issoufou has contested every presidential election since 1993 but was beaten in 1999 and 2004 by his charismatic rival Mamadou Tandja.

His ascent to power began in 1993 when he was named prime minister under Mahamane Ousmane, Niger's first democratically elected president.

He held the post for a year and also served as parliament speaker from 1995 to 1996.

The next years saw him in opposition and spearheading a campaign against Tandja's 's attempts to extend his tenure beyond its constitutional limit -- a bid that finally led to a February 2010 coup.

- 'Mission accomplished' -

Issoufou's patient wait for the top job finally paid off in 2011 when he won a presidential election organised by the military junta that had toppled Tandja.

His winning pitch was a pledge to restore stability to a country wracked by coups since 1974 and to secure it from jihadist groups active in restive west Africa.

Issoufou claims he has delivered, kicking off his electoral campaign in January by proclaiming "Mission accomplished!"

But critics say this is far from the case with the country under attack from Nigeria's Boko Haram Islamists in the south and jihadist groups active in the north and west.

Issoufou has also attracted criticism for bending over backwards to pander to Niger's former colonial master France by giving it lucrative uranium concessions and allowing it to deploy a large military contingent in 2014 to combat militants who move men and material across the Sahel region of North Africa.

"He has built roads at huge cost while the people go hungry and the hospitals are without medicine," said Seini Oumarou, a leading candidate in the presidential election.

Critics also accuse him of ruling with an iron fist with opponents being frequently arrested -- albeit for brief periods -- and cite the heavy police presence in the country.

Issoufou meanwhile says he will create history this time with a "knock-out" first round victory -- which would be a first in Niger.

But whether "Zaki", or "lion" -- Issoufou's nickname in his native Hausa language -- will pull it off remains to be seen.