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Niger Holds Local Elections, Saturday - 2004-07-24

The West African country of Niger is holding local elections, ahead of parliamentary and presidential elections scheduled for later this year. Authorities in Niger hope the vote will be without incident.

Turnout was reported to be low in many parts of Niger on Saturday, but voting started out in an orderly and transparent manner, according to a United Nations observer from Nigeria, Edward Sarki.

"People are orderly," he said. "There are security officials, and nobody has been deprived, once you have your voter's card, and nobody has been deprived. These are some of the things that cause problems in an election like this. But when things are going smoothly, I don't think there should be any problems."

Hundreds of voters, however, complained they could not find their voter card at any of the many polling stations.

One voter, Abdou Ibbo, says he's been looking for his voter card for two weeks, and no official seems to know where it is. Many polling stations also opened late because they lacked ballot boxes and voting slips.

Despite those problems, Niger President Mamadou Tandja expressed what he called his enormous satisfaction with the polling.

Speaking to reporters shortly after the polls opened in Niger's capital, Niamey, Saturday, Mr. Tandja said the elections were part of his efforts to decentralize government and make local communities more responsible for their own affairs.

Asked if remote areas would be ready for local government, he said it was about time, 44 years after independence. Decentralization was a key component of a 1995 peace accord, which ended a Tuareg insurgency in the north of the huge, mostly desert nation.

Local elections were first held in 1999, but were annulled after a military coup. Up to now, local councilors and mayors, mostly sultans or village elders, have been appointed by presidential decree.

The opposition is campaigning on an anti-corruption platform, accusing authorities of pilfering state coffers.

Street scuffles between opposing camps marred the 10-day campaign phase that preceded Saturday's vote.

Legislative elections are expected in October, to be followed by a presidential vote before the end of the year. Electoral officials say these three polls will be the thermometer of democratic progress in Niger, one of the world's poorest countries.

It depends mostly on subsistence farming, now that world demand for uranium has gone down.