Niger to hold term-limit referendum

NIAMEY: The president of uranium-rich Niger is pushing forward with a highly controversial referendum Tuesday on a new constitution that would remove term-limits and grant him an unprecendented three-year transitional term with boosted power.

Opposition leaders are boycotting the vote because they say it is illegal, a view shared by international donors who may respond by cutting aid to one of the world's poorest nations.

Mamadou Tandja has ruled the desert country since 1999, twice winning votes hailed as free and fair. But in the waning months of his final term, the bespectacled 71-year-old has gone down the path of many African strongmen, breaking a promise he has frequently made to step down when his term expires Dec. 22.

Over the last few months, Tandja has swept aside every obstacle in his path.

In May, he dissolved parliament because it opposed the plan. In June, he invoked extraordinary powers to rule by decree, as dictators and coup leaders have done across the African continent for decades.

A few days later, he dissolved the nation's constitutional court after it ruled the referendum illegal and a violation of his oath of office. Tandja established another court in its place whose members he personally appointed.

Tandja claims he is only pushing to stay in power because his people have demanded him to. He says they want him to finish several large-scale projects worth billions of dollars that have gotten under way in recent months, including a hydroelectric dam, an oil refinery, and what will be the largest uranium mine in Africa.

Analysts say the projects, financed by China, France and Arab nations, dwarf other foreign aid and are helping keep Tandja in power, and his critics believe he wants to stay on so his family and clan can benefit from the expected influx of wealth.

The ease with which Niger's democratic institutions have been cast aside marks a setback for a continent struggling to shake off so-called Big Men rulers who cling to power by force and patronage.

The desire to extend terms of sitting presidents is a common scourge in Africa. Though a handful of leaders have failed in attempts to extend their rule, many more have succeeded. Similar referendums have been pushed through in Algeria, Cameroon, Chad, Gabon, Guinea, Namibia, Tunisia and Uganda.

Africa has already been hit by coups in Guinea, Mauritania and Madagascar in the last year. And if Tuesday's referendum succeeds, it may sow more instability in Niger, which has been beset for years by a northern rebellion which finally eroded this year after splitting into three rival factions. Northern Niger has also seen activity by the al-Qaida terror network, which has kidnapped foreigners, including the U.N.'s special envoy to the country.

Routinely hit by periodic drought, food shortages and desertification, Niger is ranked 173 out of 177 nations on the U.N.'s human development index, which measures general well being. And it may get poorer still. The country has the world's highest birthrate, a statistic that is stepping up pressure on scarce resources.

Both sides argue over the legality of Tandja's actions.

Tandja claims he has broken no law, but opponents say he can only legally rule by decree if Niger is under real threat and the assembly is in place to safeguard against abuse.

The new constitution has been heavily criticized because it was drafted not by national consensus, but by a five-member panel appointed by Tandja.

Among the new powers written into it for the president: authority to name one third of a new 60-seat senate, and the ability to appoint a media czar who can jail members of the press considered a threat to the state.

The new constitution would also do away with Niger's semi-presidential system of governance, replacing it with a presidential system and a prime minister with vastly reduced power.

The current constitution stipulates no president can run for office more than twice, and contains a clause explicitly stating term-limits cannot be amended. Tandja and his supporters say the only way he can stay on is to replace it.

Tandja's campaign to stay in power is called Tazartcha, meaning simply, "Continue," in the local Hausa language. Billboards call the vote an "exercise in sovereignty," but in a country where the U.N. says 70 percent of adults are illiterate, some voters have no idea what's at stake.

State media only carry pro-referendum messages, and a private TV station that broadcast a statement critical of Tandja was temporarily shut down.

So far, thousands of opposition supporters have protested, but only twice, and lawyers and the seven most powerful trade unions launched brief, ineffective strikes.

On Monday, security forces including the police and army cast early ballots so they would be free to secure Tuesday's vote.