Voters in Niger on Saturday chose between two candidates in a presidential runoff, a vote many hope will usher in democracy more than a year after soldiers blasted their way into the presidential palace and kidnapped the elderly president.
"Niger is returning to democracy. If we succeed in this election, we will have achieved a democracy that will give an example to Africa, the world and in particular to Nigeriens," said junta chief and acting head of state, General Salou Djibo, as polls opened in the capital, Niamey.
Some 6.7 million registered voters in the West African nation chose between two former prime ministers: one, a veteran opposition leader promising change; the other, an ally of the ousted president who is calling for continuity. The polls closed later Saturday without any major incidents.
"What we want is to turn the page on political crises in Niger. The loser should concede his defeat and the new president should get to work to find a solution to our problems of unemployment, corruption and misappropriation of public funds," said voter and student Mariama Maiga.
Former opposition leader Mahamadou Issoufou is the favorite, having led the first round of voting in January and secured the backing of four opposition candidates, including third-place finisher Hama Amadou.
"I have important support from several candidates," Issoufou said at a polling station in the capital. "There is no doubt I will be elected."
Government worker Lawan Kader Guirguidi said he supported Issoufou.
"I think that if Issoufou is elected, there won't be any more military coups," he said. "He respects the law."
Others were reluctant to rule out the ex-president's party and its candidate, Seini Oumarou.
"I am confident about the results. For a second round, the counters revert to zero, so I'm optimistic," said Oumarou as he cast his ballot in Niamey.
Many cheered the February coup that ended the rule of President Mamadou Tandja after he stayed in office months past his legal mandate. But some doubt the vote itself will fully break a long cycle of coups, countercoups and political crises _ or solve the country's many problems.
Niger has a long tradition of strongmen seizing power by force. This presidential runoff marks the third post-coup transition to constitutional rule it has undertaken since 1993.
A new constitution approved by referendum in October gives the military until April 6 to hand the country back over to civilians and return to its barracks.
Only then, analysts say, will the real test begin.
"It is important that those who are going to govern respect the constitution and not forget that they are there for the general good. They are not in power for themselves but to realize their programs," said Mahaman Tidjani Alou, head of political science at the University of Niamey.
Elected in 2000 and again in 2004, former president Tandja, 72, sparked resistance at home and abroad in 2009 after pushing through constitutional changes that increased his powers and abolished term limits.
Oumarou has promised to "consolidate" the work Tandja started and release the former president, currently in prison on charges of graft during his decade in power.
His rival, Issoufou, has promised to bolster internal security, revive the economy and create 250,000 new jobs for the masses of unemployed youth.
Niger is home to some of the poorest people on earth, with a life expectancy of just 52 years. Its northern deserts and even the capital, Niamey, have been the scene of kidnappings linked to al-Qaida terrorists.
Security analysts and Niger's interim government say the terrorists, traffickers and other criminal elements working in the Sahel pose little threat to the elections, though they are expected to pose a formidable challenge for the country's next president.
Provisional results are expected within three days.
Look contributed to this report from Dakar, Senegal.