Niamey: Counting began in Niger`s presidential poll Sunday in an election that has seen incumbent Mahamadou Issoufou promise a first-round "knockout" blow to his opponents, who are already crying foul after a tense campaign.
A vast nation endowed with an abundance of uranium, gold, coal and oil but among the poorest on the planet, Niger is electing a head of state, as well as a new parliament, with Issoufou hoping for a second five-year term.
"Everything has gone well in an atmosphere of calm and serenity. There are some shortcomings but Ceni (the electoral commission) is taking measures to allow voters to exercise their right to vote," commission president Ibrahim Boube said, adding that voting in some areas had been pushed back to Monday after electoral material did not arrive in time.
A total of 7.5 million people were eligible to vote at 25,000 polling stations across the country on the edge of the Sahara desert, where security is a growing concern after attacks by jihadists from neighbouring Nigeria, Mali and Libya.
The election results are expected within five days.
Security was tight with forces on patrol across the country, including the capital Niamey, where voting got off to a delayed start in many parts of the city due to the late delivery of ballot papers and other materials.
Interior Minister Hassoumi Massaoudou said earlier Sunday that vote was going smoothly "especially in Diffa, where voting material arrived on time", referring to a border region that has been hit by frequent Boko Haram Islamist violence, and where some 200,000 displaced people were eligible to vote.
After voting in Niamey, Issoufou said "there will be only one winner, and that will be Niger", saying he hoped the election would reinforce the country`s democratic structures.
In an interview with AFP on Thursday, the 63-year-old said he was "absolutely" confident of victory.
Issoufou said he had met his pledges on boosting growth and infrastructure, while shoring up security in the face of jihadist attacks.
Known as the "Zaki" or "lion" in Hausa, the majority language in Niger, the former mathematician and mining engineer faces 14 competitors, including an ex-president.
Should he fail to win a first-round victory, his rivals, who have accused him of planning to rig the result, have agreed to unite behind whoever scores highest amongst them for the second round.
Heading the opposition pack is 66-year-old Hama Amadou, who campaigned from behind bars after being arrested in November over his alleged role in a baby-trafficking scandal.
Amadou, a former premier and parliament speaker, heads the Nigerien Democratic Movement (NDM) whose members were tear-gassed by police in a protest earlier this month.
Among the other candidates are Seyni Oumarou, a runner-up in the 2011 presidential race, and Niger`s first-ever democratically-elected president, Mahamane Ousmane, 66.