Residents of Niger, the landlocked West African nation, voted today to choose a new president and parliament in elections to restore civilian rule in the world’s sixth-biggest uranium producer.
Polling stations closed at 7 p.m. local time, said Illiassou Moumouni, a spokesman with the country’s electoral commission. In the capital city, Niamey, turnout was between 45 percent and 51 percent, he said. Results may start being published tomorrow. The nation’s 6.5 million registered voters chose from 10 presidential candidates seeking to replace junta leader Djibo Salou, a former head of an artillery squadron who ousted President Mamadou Tandja last year.
“I have a sense of great satisfaction and hope,” Salou, who is not on the ballot, told reporters after voting in the capital. “It is a new beginning for Niger.”
In Niamey, “no discrepancies were found in the polling stations checked,” said Ousmane Abdoulaye, an observer with a coalition of four local civil society groups.
The elections come as an al-Qaeda-linked group has stepped up attacks in the country and as Nigeriens are recovering from a 2009-2010 drought that put about 7 million people, almost half the country’s population, at risk of starvation.
Salou vowed to hold elections within a year after toppling Tandja on Feb. 18, following his attempt to abolish term limits and extend his 11-year rule. A runoff vote will be held March 12 if no candidate wins more than 50 percent. Results will be published beginning tomorrow, according to Saley Boube, a spokesman for the national electoral commission.
Hama Amadou, a former prime minister who is the presidential candidate of the Mouvement Democratique Nigerien, said today that ballots “disappeared” in his home region of Tillaberi in western Niger.
Mahamane Sani Djibadje, chairman of the regional electoral commission, said in a phone interview he had not received reports of any problems with voting in the area.
Abba Zarama Kiari, spokesman for the Nigerien Party for Democracy and Socialism, accused supporters of two other parties of fraud.
Amadou, along with Seini Oumarou, the 60-year-old candidate for Tandja’s Mouvement National pour la Societe de Developpement, and Mahamadou Issoufou, a 58-year-old French-trained mining engineer and former prime minister, are seen as the three main candidates.
“It’s a great day for Niger,” said Issoufou, leader of the anti-Tandja Parti Nigerien pour la Democratie et le Socialisme, which won the most seats in Jan. 11 municipal elections. The vote is “an expression of respect for commitments made by the transitional authorities,” he told reporters in Niamey.
A constitutional amendment approved by voters in October restored term limits and will force the government to publish figures for the country’s mining and oil revenue. Areva SA, the world’s largest supplier of nuclear equipment and services, mined 2,296 metric tons of uranium from Niger in 2009.
Seven people, including an Areva employee and five sub-contractors of the company, were abducted on Sept. 16 in the northern mining city of Arlit by suspected members of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. The group was also responsible for kidnapping two French nationals from a restaurant in Niamey on Jan. 7 and killing them, according to the French defense ministry.
“They’ve shown the ability to abduct Westerners in new areas and conduct increasingly brazen attacks,” said Roddy Barclay, an Africa analyst with Control Risks. The latest abduction occurred less than a kilometer (0.6 mile) from the presidential palace, he said.
The attacks threaten to hinder investment in the nation of 16 million, which ranks ahead of only Zimbabwe and the Democratic Republic of Congo in the United Nations Development Program’s Human Development Index ranking of 169 countries.
Aid agencies including the U.S. Peace Corps, which had operated in the country without interruption since 1962, have pulled out staff in the wake of the attacks, cutting services in a country where one in six children die before age five, according to World Bank data.
A new civilian government is likely to review mining contracts signed by Tandja’s government between 1999 and 2010, said Barclay.
Tandja’s son, Hadia Toulaye Tandja, and Mohamed Abdoulahi, the former minister of mines, were among a group of former officials at the mining ministry arrested by Niger police in June, four months after the coup. Tandja is being held in the country’s Kollo prison after a junta inquiry accused his government of misappropriating more than 64 billion CFA francs ($132.4 million).
“I came to vote to choose a president who will lead Niger toward stability,” Djamma Moussa, a 32-year-old teacher who voted for opposition candidate Issoufou, said in an interview in Niamey. “This vote must be the ultimate step to restore democracy.”
The election’s outcome may not change much for the 82 percent of Niger’s population that lives in rural areas, said William Miles, a political scientist who studies Niger at Northeastern University in Boston.
“The elections aren’t going to change anything fundamental on the main concerns of the Nigerien population,” he said in a phone interview Jan. 25. “The people are more concerned as always with rain and crops and availability of food.”