* Niger holds presidential run-off on Feb. 21
* Ruling party candidate Bazoum seen as favourite
* Election is first democratic transition of power in Niger
By Boureima Balima
NIAMEY, Feb 18 (Reuters) – The ruling party’s candidate in Niger, Mohamed Bazoum, will enter Sunday’s presidential run-off vote as the heavy favourite to succeed outgoing Mahamadou Issoufou, whose policies to combat Islamist violence and widespread poverty he has vowed to continue.
After winning the first round in December by 22 points over his nearest rival, former president Mahamane Ousmane, Bazoum was endorsed by the third and fourth-place candidates.
Ousmane, who was president from 1993-1996, hopes to score an upset by promising change in the face of intensifying attacks by militants linked to al Qaeda and Islamic State, part of a wider security crisis across West Africa’s Sahel region.
Suspected jihadists killed at least 100 civilians on Jan. 2 in raids on two villages in the Tillabery region near the Mali border, one of the deadliest episodes in the country’s recent history.
“I promise to do everything, if I am elected president of the republic, to give you security,” Bazoum said while campaigning in Tillabery last week.
Whatever the outcome, the vote is expected to mark a watershed for Niger, which has experienced four coups since gaining independence from France in 1960, by leading to its first transition of power between two freely elected presidents.
Unlike his counterparts in Ivory Coast and Guinea, who used constitutional changes to extend their tenures last year, Issoufou is stepping aside after two five-year terms.
While Bazoum has pledged continuity with Issoufou’s policies – and even hired Issoufou’s son as his campaign manager – Ousmane has criticised the government’s record, especially on matters of corruption.
He has seized on a government audit last year that found almost 40% of the $312 million Niger spent on defence contracts in the past three years was lost through inflated costs or material that was not delivered.
“I am not for the continuity of bad governance, waste and ineffective investment,” Ousmane said in an interview with French radio this week. “I am the candidate of change.”
Ousmane disputed that Bazoum is the favourite, saying his rival’s winning margin in the first round was due to fraud. He did not provide any evidence.
Both candidates have focused on security on the campaign trail. Twice the size of France, Niger touches two of Africa’s deadliest conflicts – one near its western border with Mali and Burkina, and another near its southeastern border with Nigeria.
The rising insecurity has compounded a host of economic challenges, including drought, the COVID-19 pandemic and low prices for its top export uranium. More than 40% of the population lived in extreme poverty in 2019, according to the World Bank.
“Everyone agrees that as long as this (security) question is not addressed, no development will be possible,” said Amadou Boubacar Hassane, a constitutional lawyer.
Younoussi Abdourhamane, a 35-year-old civil society activist, said he planned to vote for Ousmane, accusing Bazoum of minimising the severity of the security crisis.
“We are in a critical enough situation that every citizen must mobilise to vote because the real issue is saving this country,” he said. (Writing by Aaron Ross Editing by Bate Felix and Bernadette Baum)
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