NIAMEY, Niger (AP) — Niger’s president will stand for re-election Sunday in a climate made tense by Islamic extremist threats and complaints about a crackdown on dissent.
For more than a year, Niger’s southeast has been hit by cross-border raids by Nigeria’s extremists Boko Haram and a state of emergency is in effect there. Recent high-profile attacks by al-Qaida’s North Africa branch in the capitals of neighboring Mali and Burkina Faso have raised fears that Niger’s capital, Niamey, could be targeted.
Supporters of President Mahamadou Issoufou express confidence he will get a second five-year term on the strength of his security record, which includes hosting French forces and American drones in one of the world’s poorest countries.
“We’re emphasizing the positive record of our candidate, notably in the fight against terrorism. No terrorist group has been able to establish a base in Niger,” said Issoufou’s campaign director, Ouhoumoudou Mahamadou.
At a packed stadium in Niamey on Friday, the last day of campaigning, Issoufou promised his supporters a first-round win. If no presidential candidate tops 50 percent of the vote, the two leading candidates will compete in a runoff expected March 20.
But his opponents claim the president’s support is weak. “The re-election of the sitting president is impossible because he’s only supported by the smaller parties,” said Issoufou Tamboura, campaign director for Seyni Oumarou, who came in second in the 2011 vote.
Government critics accuse Issoufou of silencing opponents to stay in office, pointing to a recent string of arrests of opposition politicians, journalists and a singer who released a song critical of Issoufou.
“It’s a recurring tension in Niger. In recent years we’ve seen a lot of arrests that have created a tense situation,” said Gilles Yabi, founder of the Senegal-based West Africa think tank Wathi. But Yabi said that election-related violence is not expected unless there is evidence of “massive fraud.”
Niger, a sprawling, landlocked desert country in West Africa, has about 7.5 million voters registered for Sunday’s elections, in which candidates will also be competing for 171 legislative seats. State television announced this week that roughly 1.5 million voters lacking identity cards would be able vote by having witnesses vouch for them — a practice that opposition leaders warned could lead to fraud.
Polls open Sunday at 8 a.m. and close at 6 p.m. in most of the country, though they will open and close 30 minutes earlier in the eastern Diffa region, which has been attacked multiple times by Boko Haram. Land borders will be closed for 48 hours beginning at midnight on Saturday, the interior ministry said in a statement Friday.
Ahmed reported from Bamako, Mali.
BABA AHMED, Associated Press
DALATOU MAMANE, Associated Press
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