- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 17, 2004

NIAMEY, Niger - This landlocked West African state went to the polls Tuesday to choose between incumbent President Mamadou Tandja and one of his five opponents in a race defined largely by the poverty that envelops two-thirds of its population.

Provisional results are expected by week’s end, and a report from an army of election observers is due out tomorrow.

Most political analysts predict a win for Mr. Tandja, 66, but are divided about whether he can secure an outright majority, which would spare the army colonel, first elected in 1999, a runoff.

Two-thirds of Niger’s more than 11 million people live on less than a dollar a day. An estimated 5 million are eligible to vote.

“I am hopeful that citizens will be strongly behind me,” Mr. Tandja said as he cast his ballot here in the capital. “I want to make it through on the first round.”

Polls opened without incident amid allegations of fraud from Mr. Tandja’s rivals, including claims that false voter-registration cards were being distributed to supporters of the ruling National Movement for Society and Development (MNSD).

More than 1,600 national and international election observers were present in the mostly Muslim nation that ranks at the bottom of the U.N. Human Development Index.

This year’s invasion of desert locusts, the biggest in more than a decade, barely avoided destroying the fertile south and center of the country, where more than 85 percent of the population scrapes out a living on subsistence millet, sorghum and vegetable farming.

Education and job-creation are major concerns, because only one-third of Niger’s children are in primary school and adult unemployment is rising. Hurt by the slump in the 1980s in the price of uranium, of which it is the world’s No. 3 producer, Niger is banking on oil exploration to help lift its economy and pay off its debt, estimated by the World Bank last year at $1.8 billion.

Mr. Tandja has, despite the country’s dearth of resources, managed to achieve regional prominence, serving as chief of UEMOA, the French acronym of the West African economic and monetary union, and playing a role in mediation efforts for crises such as Ivory Coast.

Having won nearly 60 percent of the vote in the second round of the 1999 election, Mr. Tandja is the first president of independent Niger to have lasted a full five-year term. During that time, he has consolidated his party’s position with a tight grip on the media while boosting his own popularity in the interior.

Since being appointed interior minister by ex-President Ali Saibou in March 1990, Mr. Tandja’s name has been associated with the bloody repression of a Touareg demonstration at Tchintabaraden in May of that year that left 63 persons dead and led to a bitter Touareg uprising from 1991 to 1995.

Considered his toughest election rival is Mahamadou Issoufou, leader of the main opposition Niger Party for Democracy and Socialism-Tarayya, which holds a majority in the 83-member parliament.

Mr. Issoufou stoked the pre-vote fires with charges Sunday that Mr. Tandja’s MNSD planned to rig Tuesday’s vote.

Another opponent, Mahamane Ousmane of the Social Democratic Convention (CSD), became president in 1993 — having beaten Mr. Tandja — but was deposed by 1996 by Ibrahim Bare Mainassara, who was later assassinated.

Mr. Ousmane was a surprise casualty in the first round of the 1999 election, but quickly threw his support behind Mr. Tandja, helping him win.

This has given Niger a reasonable assurance of stability to weather the deep differences between the two major ethnic groups — the Hausa in the east and the Djerma in the west.

Niger and neighboring Mali are part of the Pan Sahel Initiative, a U.S.-funded military training program to help the poor and porous northwest African countries battle terrorism within and across their borders.

Conflict is frequent and often unreported in the north of Niger, where passenger buses have been attacked this year and government troops clash often with insurgent bands of Touareg nomads.

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