By Katarina Hoije

Niger President Mahamadou Issoufou’s favored successor, Mohamed Bazoum, is the front-runner to win Sunday’s elections, after the main opposition challenger was barred from standing.

Issoufou, 68, is stepping down after serving two five-year terms. His departure paves the way for the first-ever peaceful transition of power between two elected leaders in the West African nation, which has had four coups since it won independence from France in 1960. More than 7.4 million people have registered to vote.

Bazoum, 60, who has the backing of the ruling Parti Nigerien pour la Democratie et le Socialisme Tarayya, served as Issoufou’s foreign and interior minister before quitting to focus on his campaign. He faces 29 other candidates, including ex-president Mahamane Ousmane and Ibrahim Yacouba, a former foreign minister.

The Constitutional Court deemed Hama Amadou, the main opposition leader, ineligible to run. While the court didn’t give a reason for it’s decision, it may be related to his 2017 conviction for being involved in a child trafficking ring — a crime for which he served a one-year-prison sentence.

Least-Developed Nation

The United Nations Development Program last year ranked Niger as the world’s least-developed nation. Advances have been made during Issoufou’s tenure, with World Bank data showing the proportion of the population living below the poverty line has fallen to just more than 40%, from 48% a decade ago.

Niger’s education and health-care budgets have come under pressure over recent years however, as the government redirected funds to counter attacks by Boko Haram and al-Qaeda-affiliated militants that killed scores of people.

The world’s fifth-largest producer of uranium, Niger has emerged as a linchpin in the fight against insurgents in West Africa’s Sahel region. The U.S. has a $110 million drone base in the northern city of Agadez and France has deployed troops as part of a counter-terrorism force.

If elected, Bazoum has pledged to increase access to secondary education for girls, a change he says will encourage them to have fewer children. Niger’s population growth rate of 3.8% is one of the world’s highest.

Bloomberg

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