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Africa

Niger Presidential race all but over

media Voting materials are seen on a desk at a polling station during the country's presidential and legislative elections in Niamey, Niger, February 21, 2016 REUTERS/Joe Penney

Niger’s President, Mahamadou Issoufou, has edged closer to victory in next week's elections, after the opposition coalition dropped out of the presidential race. The Coalition for Change suspended its campaign on Tuesday night and urged its representatives to do the same, citing unfair treatment of its jailed candidate, Hama Amadou. Experts warn their 'empty chair' policy may be counter-productive.

President Mahamadou Issoufou approaches the March 20 second round of the presidential election all but certain of victory.

After failing to win an outright majority in the first ballot, he looks likely to secure a second term now that Niger's opposition coalition has pulled out of the race.

They're citing allegations of fraud and delays in releasing official results as the basis for their decision and called on other MPs also to boycott the race.

The coalition, which unites about 20 political parties, has thrown its weight behind jailed candidate Hama Amadou, who secured 17.7% of the vote in the first round compared with the president's 48.4%.

Government spokesperson, Hassoumi Massaoudou, says the real reason the opposition is pulling out is cowardice: "They've realized that they are heading towards certain defeat," he told RFI. "They've seen that the majority of candidates in the second round all decided to back President Mahamadou Issoufou, which means it was only a matter of time before they were defeated," he said, stating he was surprised by the opposition's announcement.

The opposition on its part says it was taken aback by the government's decision to reduce the campaign time for the second round from 21 to 10 days.

"Whether it is 10 days or two weeks doesn't matter, building an opposition is a constant process that takes years and years," Sylvie Aboa-Bradwell, director of the London-based thinktank Policy Centre for African Peoples, told RFI, claiming the opposition were refusing to see the bigger picture.

"If they had a specific programme, a constructive programme for leading the country, it shouldn't matter who is leading the party or opposition coalition," she said.

"But the fact that they haven't got a programme to address the real issues facing the country is the reason why they are focusing on a specific personality."

That of 66-year-old Hama Amadou draws attention. The former premier and current speaker of Parliament has been in the media spotlight since 2014 when he was accused of involvement in a massive baby trafficking scandal, which he has always denied.

He has been in prison since November last year and has blamed his detention on political repression.

"Mr Hama Amadou is not in prison for political reasons," government spokesperson Hassoumi Massaoudou stated.

"The opposition has exhausted all of the legal avenues possible both at the national and international level, and every court agreed that this is a criminal affair which must run its course."

Hama Amadou is accused of forging and altering birth certificates to switch the names of mothers.

"The presidential election is in no way an excuse [for him] to avoid the justice system," Massaoudou insists.

Aboa-Bradwell sees Hama Amadou as a liability for the opposition: "There are many countries in Africa where they do not have the luxury of fair and credible elections... and here is a president who admits he has been forced into a second round by a small margin. So really the opposition should unite and go to the election with or without Mr Amadou."

The government meanwhile is determined to push ahead with the second ballot on March 20 as planned; it is widely expected to hand President Issoufou a second term.

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