NIAMEY, January 29, 2011 (AFP) – Niger goes to the polls Monday to replace a military junta with a civilian president who will rule one of the world’s poorest countries living under the growing menace of Al-Qaeda militants. The North African state of 15 million people covered mostly by the Sahara desert has watched helplessly as the influence of the regional offshoot of Al-Qaeda has grown in recent years. Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) has staged a series of kidnappings of foreigners, the latest being two young Frenchmen snatched by militants from the capital, Niamey, three weeks ago and killed during an abortive rescue mission launched by France. Junta leader Salou Djibo said that security was the top priority for impoverished Niger ahead of the presidential and parliamentary polls. “Security has no price,” he said, while acknowledging that Niamey has few resources of its own to combat the fundamentalist threat which crosses national borders throughout the Sahara region.
The junta took power in February last year to end a crisis triggered by then president Mamadou Tandja’s attempts to extend his rule beyond the constitutionally allowed two consecutive five-year terms. The military agreed to preside over a transition to civilian rule and no member of the ruling junta is standing for election in Monday’s polls. The key candidate is opposition leader Mahamadou Issoufou, whose Social Democratic Party represents change, but he faces a challenge from three other candidates intent on blocking his way. Seini Oumarou is the anointed follower of the deposed leader Tandja, who is still languishing in jail, and whose National Movement for the Development of Society he leads. Former prime minister Hama Amadou is also close to the deposed leader while Niger’s first democratically-elected president in 1993, Mahamane Ousmane, is trying for another term. Oumarou, Amadou and Ousmane have created a stir in Niger by forging a pact meant to keep Issoufou from victory should no candidate emerge with an overall majority and the presidential poll goes to a second round. In the event one of them finds himself in a head-to-head against the social democrat the other two will give him their full backing.
All main candidates in the former French colony have similar platforms, with fighting poverty which afflicts 60 percent of the population the main goal along with a more equitable distribution of income, notably from the mining of uranium of which Niger is a leading producer. Niger’s history of 50 years since independence from Paris has been a series of coups and military regimes. The past leaves many voters sceptical about prospects for democracy when most of the candidates have ties to previous regimes and Tandja is said to be closely watching developments from his prison cell.
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