General Djibo Salou, head of the military junta that ousted President Mamadou Tandja last year, was the first to vote at 8 a.m. local time at a polling station in Niamey, the capital.
“It’s a great day today,” he told reporters after he voted. “The process of restoring democracy, which is the junta’s credo, is completed. I call on Nigeriens to vote massively and I urge both candidates to recognize the vote results.”
The West African nation’s 6.7 million registered voters are choosing between former Prime Minister Mahamadou Issoufou and Seini Oumarou, leader of Tandja’s party. Provisional results may be published by March 14, said Abdoulaye Mamoudou, a spokesman for the country’s election commission.
The new leader will face a challenge of aiding the nation’s recovery from a 2009-10 drought that left one in five children under the age of 5 suffering from malnutrition, according to the World Food Programme. Niger must also deal with an al-Qaeda- linked group that has stepped up attacks targeting foreigners in the country of 16 million.
Voting is proceeding “normally in all parts of the country,” said Ghousmane Abdourahamane, president of the election commission. “No incidents were reported. Electoral materials are available,” he told reporters in Niamey.
Both candidates said they were satisfied with the electoral process in Niger and promised to accept defeat if they lose.
“I have great support and I’m sure the vote will be favorable,” said Issoufou after he cast his ballot. Oumarou congratulated “the junta that has kept its commitment to hold elections and restore civilian rule” after he voted.
Voting began peacefully, said Santiago Fisas Ayxe, head of the European Union’s election-observer mission, in an interview in Niamey. “We hope that Niger will pass this vote to restore its democracy,” he said.
Issoufou, a former technical director at one of Areva SA (CEI)’s Nigerien units Societe des Mines de l’Air, was prime minister from 1993 to 1994 and was jailed in 2009 after he and other opposition leaders called for a general strike to protest Tandja’s attempts to extend his rule. He has promised “continuity” in the mining industry and has vowed to increase defense spending to combat threats from al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. He received 36.1 percent of votes in the Jan. 31 first round.
Issoufou “knows our problems and his program includes solutions to boost the development of our country,” said 31- year-old Hadiza Djibo, a teacher, as she cast her ballot in the Niamey neighborhood of Yantala.
Oumarou, a prime minister under Tandja from 2007 to 2009, was detained briefly by the junta in July over allegations of embezzlement. He got 23.2 percent of votes in the first round.
Garba Bourey, a 46-year-old businessman, said as he voted today that he supported Oumarou’s pledge to “continue major projects launched by Tandja.”
Both men have vowed to improve education and bolster agriculture in a country where just 15 percent of women are literate and 82 percent of the population relies on farming and animal herding, according to data from the WFP and the CIA’s World Fact Book.
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