Need for peace and security before Niger can develop, president says

Niger heads to the polls - © Arne Gillis, EPA

Niger’s presidential election passed without incident on Sunday with President Mahamadou Issoufou saying the country, which is fighting Islamist insurgents on multiple fronts, will need peace and security before it can develop its economy.

Issoufou, who has campaigned on his record of preventing Nigeria-based militant group Boko Haram from setting up a base in the country, told reporter after casting his ballot in the capital, Niamay, that Niger is “the only winner” in the election.

“This is a great day for Niger and for our institutions,” he said in comments broadcast on the French news site La Voix de l’Amerique.

“There will be only one winner, it will be Niger. Niger needs peace and security to continue on the path of progress, economic and social development.”

Some 7.5 million voters were registered to vote in the election with candidates also competing for 171 legislative seats.

Apart some voting stations in Niamay reported to have opened late, there were no major incidents by 1530 GMT on election day.

Issoufou, of the Socialist Party, is a former prime minister as well as a mathematician and mining engineer, who is known locally as “lion.” He was elected president in 2011.

Political tensions erupted in 2013, when the speaker of the parliament, Hama Amadou, broke from the ruling coalition and became the main challenger to Issoufou.

In August 2014, Amadou, 66, fled to France after he was accused of trafficking babies. He has denied the charges, saying they are politically motivated.

Amadou was arrested in November 2015 after returning to Niger. He was denied bail in January, but given the all-clear to run in the election for the Nigerian Democratic Movement party.

Seini Oumarou, 65, a runner-up to Issoufou in the 2011 presidential race, is also among the 15 contenders.

Apart from political turmoil, the landlocked country of 17 million – which ranked last out of 188 countries and territories on the UN’s human development index in 2015 – is under constant threat from al-Qaeda-linked fighters to the north and west and Boko Haram group in the south.

Violent clashes between Boko Haram and the Nigerian army have displaced thousands of civilians, many of who have sought refuge in Niger’s Diffa region, which is suffering massive food shortages and experiencing an “unprecedented humanitarian crisis,” according to the World Bank.

Niger is also experiencing low average rainfall, which is reducing agriculture output while international demand for its main commodity exports, uranium and oil, is low and impacting economic growth.

Should no winner take an outright majority, a second round of elections is due to take place on March 20.