Niger Voters Pick New President in Historic Runoff Election

Voters in Niger are picking a new president Sunday in a runoff election set to mark the first-ever transfer of power through the ballot box in the West African nation.

Mohamed Bazoum, an ally of incumbent President Mahamadou Issoufou, received 39% of the vote in a first round that fielded 30 candidates. He now faces a single opponent, Mahamane Ousmane, who was president from 1993 to 1996. Ousmane, who attracted 17% support in the Dec. 27 vote, is boosted by a coalition of opposition parties.

Bazoum, a former interior minister who’s pledged to continue Issoufou’s policies, is the most likely winner, according to Ibrahim Yahaya Ibrahim, a senior analyst with Brussels-based International Crisis Group. “Nonetheless, Ousmane’s discourse for change appeals strongly to certain segments of the Nigerien population, making him a formidable competitor,” Ibrahim said.

Issoufou, 69, is stepping down after serving the two terms allowed by the constitution of a country that’s been rocked by political unrest, including four coups since it won independence from France in 1960.

The new president will have to contend with escalating attacks from Islamist militants, widespread poverty, and food insecurity. Niger, the fifth-biggest exporter of uranium globally, is also the world’s least-developed country among 189 ranked by the United Nations’ Human Development Index.

Bazoum, 61, has vowed to fight state corruption, push for girls to attend secondary school and bring an end to the conflict, which resulted in more than 400 civilian casualties last year, according to Jose Luengo-Cabrera, a security analyst with the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Ousmane, 71, has pledged to improve access to water and education, stem migration and adopt a new approach in the counter-insurgency effort.

The landlocked country has become a linchpin in the fight against jihadists and other armed groups in West Africa’s Sahel region, at the southern fringe of the Sahara desert. France has deployed troops, its largest military operation abroad, while the U.S. has a $110 million drone base in the northern city of Agadez.

“How the next administration will handle growing insecurity in Niger and neighboring countries is a key issue for the U.S. and other western forces operating there,” Ornella Moderan, who heads the Institute for Security Studies’ Sahel program, said by phone from Dakar.

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