Niger's 'Lion' Seeks New Term as Voters Go to the Polls

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Voters in Niger went to the polls Sunday in an election in which President Mahamadou Issoufou has promised a "knockout" blow to his opponents, one of whom is behind bars on baby-trafficking charges.

A vast nation endowed with an abundance of uranium, gold, coal and oil but among the poorest on the planet, Niger is electing a head of state, as well as a new parliament, with Issoufou hoping for a second five-year term.

A total of 7.5 million people are eligible to vote at 25,000 polling stations across the country on the edge of the Sahara Desert. The results are expected within five days.

Voting got off to a delayed start in many parts of the capital Niamey due to the late delivery of ballot papers and other materials.

"I'm waiting. It's 8:00 am and there's nobody. I don't see the number of the polling station and the electoral lists have not been posted," said Ali Issaka, 45, who was waiting to cast his vote at a school in Lazare-1 district in the capital.

In an interview with AFP on Thursday, Issoufou said he was "absolutely" confident of victory and predicted a second-round run-off vote would not be needed.

Issoufou said he had met his pledges on boosting growth and infrastructure, while shoring up security in the face of attacks by jihadists from neighboring Nigeria, Mali and Libya.

Known as the "Zaki" or "lion" in Hausa, the majority language in Niger, the 63-year-old former mathematician and mining engineer faces a total of 14 rivals, including two former prime ministers and an ex-president.

Should he fail to win a first-round victory, his rivals, who have accused him of planning to rig the result, have agreed to unite behind whoever scores highest amongst them for the second round.

Security was tight with security forces on patrol across the country, the south-east of which has been plagued by attacks by Boko Haram jihadists from neighboring Nigeria.

"There is no such thing as zero risk but we are are working to uphold security on election day," Interior Minister Hassoumi Massaoudou said ahead of the ballot.

Heading the opposition pack is 66-year-old Hama Amadou, who is campaigning from behind bars after being arrested in November on his return from exile in France over his alleged role in a baby-trafficking scandal.

Amadou, a former premier and parliament speaker, heads the Nigerien Democratic Movement (NDM) whose members were tear-gassed by police earlier this month after gathering in their thousands to support their man, known as "the Phoenix" for his ability to rise from the ashes.

Among the other candidates are Seyni Oumarou, of the National Movement for the Society of Development (NMSD), a runner-up to Issoufou in the 2011 presidential race, and Niger's first-ever democratically-elected president, Mahamane Ousmane, 66, who is making his fourth bid to step back into the job since his 1993 election.

Defense remains a top budget priority in Niger, with the remote north threatened by jihadist groups operating out of Mali and Libya while the southeast tries to fend off Boko Haram attacks.

In December, the government said it had foiled an attempted military coup.

The threat of unrest hangs over the vote, with some opposition supporters threatening a general strike if Issoufou is declared victorious at the first round.

Tensions edged higher after Niger's top court approved a controversial plan to allow voters cast their ballots without identity papers, sparking an opposition outcry on the eve of the vote.

Moussa Tchangari, a leading civil society and opposition figure who heads a rights and development group, said he feared violence.

"Everyone is afraid the outcome could be exceptionally serious," he said.

Like Tchangari, traditional leaders and religious groups have also issued calls for calm.

Niger, which has a history of military coups, has only had multi-party democracy since 1990.

Three quarters of the country's 18 million people survive on less than two dollars a day and desertification, driven by climate change, is pushing rural dwellers into towns.

The U.N. expects two million people will need food aid this year in Niger, which has the world's highest fertility rate.

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