High-stakes elections test Niger and Central African Republic

Voting in Niger is expected to lead to the West African nation’s first transfer of power between two democratically elected presidents.

Antoine Rolland/Reuters
Thierry Yanga holds his voter card during the presidential and legislative elections at a polling station in Bangui, Central African Republic, on Dec. 27, 2020.

Niger began counting the votes on Sunday from an election that is expected to lead to the West African nation’s first transfer of power between two democratically elected presidents.

Also on Sunday, Central African Republic residents turned out in huge numbers for presidential and legislative elections on Sunday, the head of the U.N. mission there said, despite rebels opening fire in some areas to try to scare away voters.

In Niger, a smooth handover would be a rare bright spot for a country that has seen four coups since gaining independence from France in 1960, and is blighted by poverty and Islamist violence that has killed hundred of civilians and soldiers in the last year alone.

It would also contrast with Ivory Coast and Guinea, whose presidents this year used constitutional changes to extend their tenures to three terms, raising fears of a democratic backslide in West Africa.

“It’s extremely important for us because we are seen as the champion of the coup d’etat,” said 50-year-old Massaoudou Abdou who voted in a school in the town of Maradi in southern Niger.

“In 60 years of independence, this is the first time,” he said, referring to the passing of power from one elected president to another.

There were no reports of widespread disruptions. 

Former interior minister Mohamed Bazoum, the ruling party’s candidate, is the overwhelming favorite to succeed President Mahamadou Issoufou, who is stepping down after two five-year terms leading the country of 23 million.

Mr. Bazoum has promised continuity with Issoufou’s policies, while also vowing to clean up pervasive corruption.

“I have a feeling of great pride that this [election] has been respected,” he said after voting in central Niamey on Sunday.

That the vote took place at all was seen as a success for Niger. Militants linked to al Qaeda and Islamic State regularly carry out attacks near the western border with Mali and Burkina Faso, including one in January that killed at least 89 soldiers. Hundreds of miles to the east, Boko Haram fighters operate near its southeastern border with Nigeria.

More than 40% of Niger’s population lives in extreme poverty, and the COVID-19 pandemic has slowed growth to a crawl, compounding the effects of climate change and low prices for uranium, its top export.

Election in Central African Republic

Central African Republic residents turned out in large numbers as President Faustin-Archange Touadera seeks a second term. Rebel groups have carried out attacks and threatened to march to the capital and disrupt the election after the constitutional court this month rejected several candidates, including former President Francois Bozize.

Mr. Touadera is considered the favorite in the field of 17 candidates. Vote counting began on Sunday and full provisional results are expected by the end of the week. The election will go to a second round if no candidate receives more than 50% of the vote.

After a slow start and sporadic gunfire in some towns, the head of the U.N. mission in the country said in a statement that there was a huge turnout. He did not provide details.

“This morning, they [rebels] started firing, hoping to scare people away from voting. Yes, in certain areas, it is difficult but in many other areas, you can see people going out massively to vote,” Mankeur Ndiaye said.

There are concerns that a substantial number of the 1.8 million registered voters in the sparsely populated nation larger than France were not be able to vote in remote towns, some controlled by armed rebels.

Heavy gunfire was reported in the town of Bouar, around 435 km (270 miles) northwest of the capital, a resident said. Gunfire also disrupted voting in other towns including Bossangoa in the northwest, and Bria in the east.

“The vote should not only take place in Bangui. I think that the elections should have been postponed. But as it is the law, it is my duty, I am coming to vote for my president,” said 31-year old Thierry Yanga, who voted in the capital.

The constitutional court on Saturday rejected an appeal from several opposition candidates for the election to be postponed. The government and a U.N. mission had rejected a postponement fearing a power vacuum.

Waves of violence

The crisis has left many in the diamond- and gold-rich nation of 4.7 million exhausted, while stirring fears of a return to the worst violence of its recent past, which includes five coups and numerous rebellions since independence from France in 1960.

Mr. Touadera was first elected in 2016 following a rebellion three years earlier that ousted Mr. Bozize. He has struggled to wrest control of vast swathes of the country from armed militias.

Successive waves of violence since 2013 have killed thousands and forced more than a million from their homes.

Mr. Touadera and the United Nations, which has over 12,800 uniformed peacekeepers in CAR, have accused Mr. Bozize of being behind the rebel offensive, which briefly seized the country’s fourth largest city last week and has led to a wave of desertions from the army.

Mr. Bozize’s candidacy was rejected because he faces an arrest warrant and U.N. sanctions for allegedly ordering assassinations and torture while president. Mr. Bozize has denied those charges.

Mr. Touadera’s international security partners have responded to the latest violence by sending additional troops and equipment, including 300 Russian military instructors and 300 Rwandan peacekeepers.

Writing by Aaron Ross, Edward McAllister, and Bate Felix; editing by Christina Fincher, Jason Neely, Larry King, and Nick Macfie.

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