NIAMEY (Reuters) - Niger’s opposition leader will run in the second round of a presidential election on March 20 despite a decision by allies to suspend their participation, his lawyer said on Friday.
President Mahamadou Issoufou, a key Western security ally in West Africa, won the first round comfortably last month with 48 percent of votes but did not clinch the majority required to win in a single round.
His main opponent Hama Amadou, jailed in November in connection with a baby-trafficking scandal, came second with around 18 percent. On Friday, he left prison for treatment in a Niamey hospital for eye problems, an opposition spokesman said.
Amadou, a former president of parliament, denies the charges against him and says they are politically motivated.
“Hama has not stepped aside. He remains the candidate for the COPA (Coalition for an Alternative) and his candidacy has not been withdrawn so he is still running,” his lawyer Mossi Boubacar told Reuters.
Amadou had until Thursday night to announce his withdrawal.
COPA announced its decision to suspend its participation on Tuesday, citing Amadou’s imprisonment and irregularities with the election procedure.
While analysts say Issoufou would have likely won either way, backing from the 20 some parties in the COPA looked set to considerably narrow the gap between the two candidates.
It is not clear if COPA’s suspension is final. This week it sent a letter to the head of regional body ECOWAS seeking an intervention to respond to its grievances, a copy of the document showed.
Analysts have warned of the risk of unrest ahead of the run-off and during Amadou’s trial which is scheduled for 23 March.
“Should he be convicted, an escalation in opposition civil unrest could occur,” wrote Andre Colling, analyst with crisis management assistance company red 24, on a blog.
Issoufou took office in April 2011, a year after a coup overthrew President Tandja Mamadou.
He is working closely with Western partners to help boost security in the vast, arid Sahel region where Islamist militants are intensifying their insurgency.
Niger is also participating in a regional African Union task force to counter Boko Haram in the Lake Chad region.
Writing by Emma Farge; editing by Ralph Boulton