Niger 'Lion' leader hopes for poll win as opposition cry foul

Boureima Hama, Patrick Fort
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Niger's President Mahamadou Issoufou leaves after voting at the Hotel de Ville in Niamey during the country's presidential and legislative elections on February 21, 2016

Niger's President Mahamadou Issoufou leaves after voting at the Hotel de Ville in Niamey during the country's presidential and legislative elections on February 21, 2016 (AFP Photo/Issouf Sanogo)

Niamey (AFP) - Counting began in Niger's presidential poll Sunday in an election that has seen incumbent Mahamadou Issoufou promise a first-round "knockout" blow to his opponents, who are already crying foul after a tense campaign.

A vast nation endowed with an abundance of uranium, gold, coal and oil but among the poorest on the planet, Niger is electing a head of state, as well as a new parliament, with Issoufou hoping for a second five-year term.

"Everything has gone well in an atmosphere of calm and serenity. There are some shortcomings but Ceni (the electoral commission) is taking measures to allow voters to exercise their right to vote," commission president Ibrahim Boube said, adding that voting in some areas had been pushed back to Monday after electoral material did not arrive in time.

A total of 7.5 million people were eligible to vote at 25,000 polling stations across the country on the edge of the Sahara desert, where security is a growing concern after attacks by jihadists from neighbouring Nigeria, Mali and Libya.

The election results are expected within five days.

Security was tight with forces on patrol across the country, including the capital Niamey, where voting got off to a delayed start in many parts of the city due to the late delivery of ballot papers and other materials.

Interior Minister Hassoumi Massaoudou said earlier Sunday that the vote was going smoothly "especially in Diffa, where voting material arrived on time", referring to a border region that has been hit by frequent Boko Haram Islamist violence, and where some 200,000 displaced people were eligible to vote.

After voting in Niamey, Issoufou said "there will be only one winner, and that will be Niger", saying he hoped the election would reinforce the country's democratic structures.

In an interview with AFP on Thursday, the 63-year-old said he was "absolutely" confident of victory.

Issoufou said he had met his pledges on boosting growth and infrastructure, while shoring up security in the face of jihadist attacks.

Defence remains a top budget priority in Niger, with the remote north threatened by jihadists operating out of Mali and Libya while the southeast tries to fend off attacks by Nigeria-based Boko Haram.

In December, the government said it had foiled an attempted military coup.

Known as the "Zaki" or "Lion" in Hausa, the majority language in Niger, the former mathematician and mining engineer faces 14 competitors, including an ex-president.

Should he fail to win a first-round victory, his rivals, who have accused him of planning to rig the result, have agreed to unite behind whoever scores highest among them for the second round.

- 'Grossly unfair' -

Niger's opposition denounced the election late Sunday as "grossly unfair", saying there had been vote rigging and a problem with duplicate voter cards.

"In many places the opposition ballots were missing," said Moussa Harouna, a representative of Seyni Oumarou, a runner-up in the 2011 presidential race.

"We discovered voter card duplicates with prefabricated family books for these cards," he said, adding that in some places voting did not start until the end of the day.

"The system is going very badly," he said.

Aside from Oumarou, there are several others challenging the incumbent for the top position.

Heading the opposition pack is 66-year-old Hama Amadou, who campaigned from behind bars after being arrested in November over his alleged role in a baby-trafficking scandal.

Amadou, a former premier and parliament speaker, heads the Nigerien Democratic Movement (NDM) whose members were tear-gassed by police in a protest earlier this month.

Niger's first-ever democratically-elected president, Mahamane Ousmane, 66, is also running. The threat of unrest hangs over the vote.

"If Issoufou wins in the first round, it's because he has cheated. If this happens we will go on strike and there will be clashes," an Amadou activist said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Tensions edged higher after Niger's top court approved a controversial plan to allow voters to cast their ballots without identity papers, sparking an opposition outcry.

"This could pave the way for fraud," Moussa Tchangari, a leading civil society and opposition figure, said ahead of the vote.

Niger, which has a history of military coups, has only had multi-party democracy since 1990.

"It's been a long time since we've seen such interest (in the election). It reminds me of the early days of democracy," said one voter, who spoke to AFP on condition of anonymity.