* Poll key to return to civilian rule
* Stability seen opening door to investment
By Abdoulaye Massalatchi
NIAMEY, Jan 28 (Reuters) - Niger is racing against the clock to print voting slips for Monday’s presidential election intended to steer the uranium-producer back to civilian rule.
A delay in the poll will raise doubts over the poor West African state’s quest for stability at a time when it is battling against an emerging presence of al Qaeda allies.
The local printing company failed to have all slips ready for nearly seven million registered voters by a midday Friday deadline, and it also emerged that voting equipment was so far installed in only three of eight regions.
“I don’t like hearing we have to wait till tomorrow — I want them today,” junta leader Salou Djibo told state radio.
Djibo came to power after a February 2010 coup against Mamadou Tandja, the ex-president who tried to stay on in power after his term had finished. Tandja is currently in jail accused of misuse of public funds.
Djibo has been praised for his promise to leave power by April this year after a likely run-off in March between whichever two candidates emerge as leaders in Monday’s poll.
Organisational hiccups over this month’s municipal elections prompted calls for the presidential vote to be delayed a few weeks, but Djibo has insisted it must go ahead.
Ten candidates are running on Monday, including veteran opposition leader Mahamadou Issoufou, ex-premier Seini Oumarou of Tandja’s MNSD party, and Hama Amadou, another ex-premier. Parliamentary elections are being held simultaneously.
Earlier this week six candidates including Oumarou announced a coalition seen bolstering the MNSD’s chances, and which was immediately attacked by rivals as a step back to the Tandja era.
“We are back where we started,” said Issoufou Sidibe of the CDTN, the main centrist opposition party. “You can’t restore democracy with those that demolished it in the first place.”
Opponents of Tandja dominated municipal elections held on Jan. 11. Delays and disorganisation prevented many from voting but the junta rejected calls for the results to be scrapped.
A poor desert nation, Niger’s uranium riches have drawn billions of dollars worth of investments, mainly from French nuclear giant Areva CEPFi.PA.
China National Petroleum Corp is also developing oil fields in the southeast and the junta said this week it had awarded Russia’s Gazprombank rights to explore and produce uranium.
In an attack highlighting the growing menace of al Qaeda in the region, it claimed the kidnapping of two Frenchmen in the Nigerien capital Niamey this month. The pair were later found dead in the desert after a failed French-Nigerien rescue bid.
Last September it kidnapped seven foreigners, including five French nationals, from the northern mining town of Arlit. The group are believed to be held somewhere in the desert, possibly Mali. (Writing by Mark John; editing by Giles Elgood)