Niger voted on Sunday in the second round of a presidential election that is expected to usher in the first democratic transition of power since the West African nation gained independence from France in 1960.
Ruling party candidate Mohamed Bazoum is seen by many as the favourite after leading in the first round on Dec. 27 with 39.3% of the vote. He is up against former President Mahamane Ousmane, who scored 17%.
Bazoum, who had held several top positions in outgoing President Mahamadou Issoufou's governments including the foreign and interior ministries, is backed by the candidates who came third and fourth in the first round.
In the capital Niamey, crowds of voters, some wearing masks to protect against COVID-19, queued in dusty school courtyards.
"I am satisfied by the calm that characterised our second-round campaign," Bazoum said after voting. "I hope that luck is on my side, but I have many reasons to believe it is indeed."
Bazoum, 61, has vowed to continue Issoufou's policies, making security a focal point as the country battles insurgencies, while introducing policies to revamp the economy.
Ousmane, 71, was Niger's first democratically elected president and was ousted in a 1996 military coup. He has been endorsed by around a dozen smaller parties and first round candidates. He has promised to bring change and tackle corruption.
The Sahel nation of around 24 million is one of the poorest in the world and struggles with recurring drought and destructive floods. The coronavirus pandemic has weighed on its economy, while weak prices for its main export, uranium, have hit revenues.
The International Monetary Fund expects Niger's economy to rebound to pre-pandemic levels, with growth of over 6% this year after dipping by 1.2% in 2020.
"The vote is in every way between continuity and change," said Mahamadou Harouna, a 30-year-old student after casting his ballot. "What is important is to find a leader who can respond to the aspirations of the people."
Niamey-based political analyst Elhadj Idi Abou said he expected turnout to be high but did not see a clear favourite.
Niger is facing two of Africa's deadliest insurgencies - one near its western border with Mali and Burkina Faso, where militants linked to al Qaeda and Islamic State have carried out a series of attacks. An attack on two villages in early January near the border with Mali killed 100.
Along its southeastern border with Nigeria attacks by Boko Haram have killed hundreds and displaced thousands.
The first round of the election was largely peaceful, and there were no immediate reports of disruptions on Sunday.