Voters in Niger cast ballots in the country\’s first-ever presidential run-off Sunday, with incumbent Mahamadou Issoufou on track for a second five-year term as the opposition observed a boycott.
Voter turnout in the capital Niamey, a stronghold of jailed opposition leader Hama Amadou, seemed lower than in the first round of the election, when queues formed outside polling stations, according to AFP reporters.
"I regret that the opposition is boycotting these elections, but we are a democracy and everyone is free to take whatever position they wish," Issoufou told AFP as he voted in Niamey.
Addressing reporters, he said: "We should avoid pointless quarrels. The winner, whoever he is, must think about bringing Nigeriens together beyond his own camp, because we face significant challenges."
"Challenges on which I have had to work. Five years is not enough to overcome these challenges, I am thinking in particular of security," he said, calling for a "holy union after two Islamist attacks on Thursday.
The election pits 64-year-old Issoufou, a former mining engineer nicknamed "the Lion", against Amadou, 66, known as "the Phoenix" for his ability to make political comebacks.
Amadou has been forced to campaign from behind bars after being detained on November 14 on baby-trafficking charges he says are bogus and aimed at keeping him out of the race.
Just days before the vote, he was evacuated from prison and flown to Paris for medical treatment, with the government saying he was suffering from an unspecified "chronic ailment."
In Niamey Sunday some polling stations opened a little later than the 8 am (0700 GMT) official start time, AFP reporters said. They were to close at 7 pm (1800 GMT), with 7.5 million people eligible to vote.
The electoral commission has to declare the results within five days, but is expected to do so on Tuesday or Wednesday.
The impoverished west African state has only had a multi-party democracy since 1990 and three-quarters of the population live on less than $2 (1.80 euros) a day.
Issoufou took a solid lead with 48.4 percent in the initial vote on February 21, way ahead of Amadou, who scored 17.7 percent.
The opposition coalition alleged fraud in the first round, claiming "unfair treatment between the two candidates" and has vowed not to recognise the results of Sunday\’s vote.
Religious groups, tribal leaders and trade unions have called for calm and dialogue.
The run-up to the first-round vote was marred by violence between supporters of the rival camps, the arrest of several leading political personalities and the government\’s announcement that it had foiled a coup bid.
During the campaign, Issoufou, who took office in 2011, repeatedly pledged to bring prosperity to the desolate but uranium-rich country and prevent further jihadist attacks in its vast remote northern deserts and from Nigeria\’s Boko Haram Islamists to the south.
Just three days before the vote, Niger suffered two jihadist attacks — one in the west claimed by Al-Qaeda\’s north African affiliate which killed three gendarmes and another by Boko Haram in which a senior army officer died.
Although Amadou, a former parliamentary speaker, backed Issoufou in 2011, he shifted into opposition in 2013.
His supporters accuse Issoufou\’s regime of bad governance, saying it has failed to eradicate poverty in the country.
But a clear-cut victory appears assured for Issoufou, who missed winning an absolute majority in the first round by just 75,000 votes.
He has managed to secure the support of former deputy cabinet head Ibrahim Yacouba and two other low polling candidates from the initial round.
On Friday, Amadou\’s doctor in Paris said his condition was improving but he would have to remain under observation for "at least 10 days."