Niger’s deepening crisis


Niger’s political crisis has intensified with President Mamadou Tandja sacking the highest court and pushing ahead with a referendum on staying in office despite a ruling that it would be illegal.

Niger is one of Africa’s poorest countries, but the uranium exporter hopes to become the world’s second biggest producer of the nuclear fuel when French energy giant Areva’s (CEPFi.PA) Imouraren mine starts up in 2012.

Below are answers to some questions about what could happen.

CAN TANDJA TOUGH IT OUT?

The 71-year-old president, a retired colonel, appears to have decided he can push through his plan to stay in power for at least another three years despite the opposition not only from his traditional opponents, but some former allies, Western donors and neighbouring states.

There is no sign of him being swayed by protests that brought tens of thousands onto the streets this month and now he is ruling by decree, he is better positioned to ban them. Strikes could have limited impact given that few in Niger have jobs and those who do cannot afford to stop work for long.

Tandja might well succeed in holding, and winning, the referendum on Aug. 4 and in suppressing any opposition.

He may also be able to further change the constitution to keep being re-elected indefinitely.

But the entire process of going against the constitutional court would raise long term questions over his legitimacy and could only embolden potential political or military challengers.

WHAT IS THE RISK OF A COUP?

The army’s leadership has said it is neutral and will not heed an opposition call to defy Tandja’s orders. Tandja appears confident he has the support of the top brass.

But Niger has a history of coups and the risk of another has certainly increased. Any potential coup-maker would argue that he was acting to defend the constitution and democracy.

Tandja was elected in 1999 following a brief transition led by a middle-ranking officer following the assassination of another former coup-maker who had got himself elected.

WHY DOES TANDJA WANT TO STAY IN POWER?

He says he needs time to introduce a fully presidential system of government that will end blockages in governance. He also says people want him to complete big projects, including new uranium mines, which will bring a big boost to income.

Several regional counterparts have also managed to scrap term limits, introduced under Western pressure.

COULD TANDJA LOSE THE REFERENDUM?

It is not impossible, but his supporters will make the maximum effort to bring out the vote and particularly in areas where traditional authorities can deliver the desired result.

If he lost, he would have little choice but to accept it. If he won, the opposition may well cry foul, extending the crisis.

A parliamentary election is also due on Aug. 20 and Tandja would need to make sure his supporters win that too — also not guaranteed — to feel more secure.

WHAT WILL THE REGION DO?

Countries in the Economic Community of West African States are worried at another sign of a retreat from democracy, which casts them all in a bad light and highlights the region’s risks at a time they are trying to win aid and investment from abroad.

Niger could be suspended if ECOWAS were not satisfied with the process, but options for tougher action are limited. A blockade of landlocked Niger is very unlikely.

WHAT ABOUT FRANCE?

On the surface at least, Paris has kept quiet. Although President Nicolas Sarkozy has promised to change an Africa policy long seen as backing strongmen in former colonies, Areva’s mining interests are vital given that nuclear power accounts for three quarters of France’s electricity.

France also has to be wary of China’s growing influence. China National Uranium Corp. starts production at its Somina project next year. China also plans a $5 billion oil project.

WHAT IMPACT WILL THERE BE FOR MINING FIRMS?

An increase in instability could certainly lead to hesitation and delays for some projects as companies question how they might fare if there were a reversal of the current administration.

A Tuareg rebellion in the Sahara desert has already been a cause for alarm by some, although it has not deterred Areva.

Mining investments also tend to be big enough and isolated enough to be able to function in isolation from the surrounding country unless there is sustained and widespread conflict, of which there is no immediate sign on the horizon.

Reuters.com

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