Niger voters pick president
Niamey - The people of Niger voted for a new civilian president on Saturday in landmark polls that the outgoing head of the military junta said should serve as an example of democracy to the whole of Africa.
Thirteen months after Mamadou Tandja was jettisoned from office over his attempts to amend the constitution, voters were choosing between a former ally of the toppled president and a veteran opposition leader in the run-off poll.
General Salou Djibo, installed as leader of the junta after the February 2010 coup, was among the first to cast his ballot.
"This is a great day for me and for all the people of Niger," Djibo said.
"If we can hold a successful election then together we will have accomplished bringing about a democracy that can serve as an example to Africa," he told reporters at a polling station in the capital Niamey.
Issoufou 'the favourite'
The run-off pits veteran opposition leader Mahamadou Issoufou, 59, against former Prime Minister Seini Oumarou, the 60-year-old leader of Tandja's party.
Issoufou, a long-time opponent of Tandja's 10-year rule, is considered the favourite after taking the lead in the first round vote on January 31 with 36% of the vote, compared to 23% for Oumarou.
Niger's junta vowed to usher in civilian government after it took power last year to end a crisis triggered by Tandja's attempts to extend his rule beyond the constitutional limits. No junta member was an election candidate.
Social Democratic Party leader Issoufou has strengthened his candidacy by forging alliances, especially with Hama Amadou, another former premier under Tandja who garnered 19% in the first round vote.
'We are going to win'
"We are going to win this election. I have received significant support, including from Hama Amadou," Issoufou told reporters as he voted.
His rival Oumarou, of the National Movement for the Development of Society, was equally bullish, discounting his rival's lead in the first round.
"I am very confident. Politics is not a game of maths. Everyone goes back to zero after the first round," he said at a Niamey polling station.
During the campaign, both candidates have promised to dissolve parliament and organise legislative elections for a more representative assembly in the vast, landlocked country on the edge of the Sahara desert.
They have also expressed similar goals for Niger, an impoverished nation that has become a base for al-Qaeda-linked militants.
They have vowed to tackle the poverty that afflicts some 60% of the population, protect against the cyclical food crises, and assure an equitable distribution of the country's wealth from uranium.
Voting appeared to have passed off peacefully, with the independent electoral commission saying it had received no reports of any incident.
"At the moment, everything is calm," said one member of the commission.
There was no immediate word on turnout although an AFP journalist said that it appeared to be relatively light in the capital where there was no sign of long queues.
Speaking at the Niamey polling station, Djibo urged supporters of the two candidates to respect the rule of law and voters to turn out in force.
"I have come here to perform my civic duty and I call on all the sons and daughters of Niger to do the same," he said.
"I also appeal to the two candidates that they respect the outcome once the results have been declared by electoral commission, and that the loser accepts his defeat."
Coups and rebellion
Just this week a "republican pact" was signed by which civilian and military authorities have agreed to respect the country's new constitution, adopted at the end of last year.
Since independence from France in 1960, Niger has been wracked by coups and faced a Tuareg rebellion in the north of the country.
And in recent years the Sahel country has become one of the bases for al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), which has been responsible for kidnappings and killings of Westerners in the region.