Niamey - A major opposition party in Niger has chosen its exiled leader, former parliamentary speaker Hama Amadou, to challenge President Mahamadou Issoufou in next year's election.
"We decide to select Hama Amadou, who is the only hope for Niger, as candidate in the presidential election in 2016," the Nigerien Democratic Movement (Moden) announced after a rally on Sunday in the southern town of Zinder, attended by several thousand people.
Amadou fled to France in August 2014 after members of parliament lifted his immunity for alleged involvement in a baby smuggling scandal, but he and his followers say this is a trumped-up "political case".
The political climate in the large, mainly arid west African country has been tense since Amadou joined the opposition in 2013. He became Issoufou's leading rival once democracy had been restored in 2011 by Niger's fourth military regime since independence in 1960.
Amadou is the first candidate to be officially named for the presidential poll, which will be coupled with parliamentary elections. The Independent National Electoral Commission (CENI) plans to hold the first round of both votes on February 21 next year.
The United Nations called last week for "peaceful and credible elections" amid political tension and threats to stability from jihadist forces in the desert north and from the radical Islamists of Boko Haram based in neighbouring northeast Nigeria.
Niger, whose primary source of foreign income is uranium, has joined a regional military alliance to fight Boko Haram, infamous for mass abductions, village massacres and suicide bombings by women and teenagers. The Islamists began attacking southern Niger last February.
Everyone "wishes to avoid a political crisis in Niger", UN special envoy to west Africa Mohamed Ibn Chambas said Thursday after three days of talks with political and civil society leaders, local and international NGOs and the CENI panel.
The opposition has challenged the CENI's proposed timetable for voting released in August, after accusing the Constitutional Court, which approves candidates and election results, of being in the president's pocket.
"Niger is caught in a vice between the terrorist attacks of Boko Haram in the south, the instability in Libya in the north and the precarious situation on the west on the border with Mali," Chambas said at the end of his visit.
In spite of these threats, "Niger remains an island of stability, but this stability is fragile", the UN envoy added.
The MODEN is the country's third largest political movement after Issoufou's Nigerien Party for Democracy and Socialism (PNDS) and the National Movement for a Developing Society, which held sway between 1999 and 2010.