Tension in Niger as Tandja ‘muscles for third term’

WITH plans of a referendum and constitutional amendment thrown to the dustbin by the country’s highest court, President Mamadou Tandja has assumed emergency powers, deepening political crisis in the uranium rich country.

LIKE other sit-tight African leaders, Mamadou Tandja is playing a game with time.

He is bent on grinding all opposition in the uranium rich country into the dust in a desperate move to cling to power.

Expected to step down when his second term in office ends later this year, Tandja, 71, is contriving ways to subvert the constitution that brought him to power. He wants a referendum, which could hand him another three years in office.

His plans have sparked protests by unions and drawn criticism from foreign donors and regional political bodies, which said they were taking a step backwards and threatened sanctions against Niger.

The landlocked former French colony of 15 million people, which stretches to the heart of the Sahara desert, hopes to become the world’s second biggest producer of uranium. It is one of the poorest countries in the world.

The political crisis in the uranium exporting state deepened on Friday last week when Niger’s highest court rejected Tandja’s latest attempt to push through a referendum on extending his rule. He then said he was assuming sweeping powers.

“President Tandja has proclaimed himself a dictator,” said the opposition coalition, the Front for the Defence of Democracy, in a statement. It called on Niger’s people to mobilise against “the coup d’etat carried out by the president of the republic.”

Tandja said he would rule by decree from Friday to safeguard the interest of Niger people. The president says he needs the time to introduce a fully presidential system of government that will give the president more power and end current blockages in governance.

According to him people want him to complete large infrastructure projects, including a hydroelectric dam, an oil refinery and French energy giant Areva’s 1.2 billion euro Imouraren uranium mine.

Those who do support the President, however, said that he should stay in office to put down a rebellion being waged by Tuareg groups in the north of the country.

He has received the draft of a new constitution designed to give himself a third five-year term in office, sent security forces to terrorise popular opposition to submission, and disregarded the Constitutional Court’s ruling against an illegal referendum slated for August 4, 2009 on his so-called constitutional review. He has also dissolved parliament.

The opposition, according to Reuters, urged the military and other security forces to disobey Tandja and demanded that he stepped down. There was no immediate response from government or the forces to the opposition’s call yet.

To many, Tandja may have copied the example of former President Olusegun Obasanjo, who had strived from 2006 – 2007 to subvert the Nigerian Constitution by claiming an unconstitutional third term.

But where Obasanjo was forced to bow to popular pressure and the National Assembly, Tandja is bent on grinding all opposition into the dust.

Niger, like Nigeria until 1999, had a history of being ruled by a succession of military dictators who held the populace hostage and subjected the country to periodic bloodbath in the name of coups and counter-coups.

In its first 14 years of independence, President Hamani Diouri, who was overthrown by Colonel Seyni Kauntche, governed Niger. After 13 years, Kountche died and was replaced by his Chief of Staff, Brigadier General Ali Saibou.

Popular protests for multi-party elections led to the convening of a National Conference in 1991. This resulted in the constitution of a transition government and elections in 1993.

Within three years, Colonel Ibrahim Bare Mainassara, who in July 1996 organised sham elections and proclaimed himself the victor, overthrew President Mahamane Ousmane.

On April 9, 1999, Major Daouda Malam Wank who held elections in October and November 1999, assassinated Mainassara in a coup.

Incumbent President Tandja won those elections for a five-year term. In December 2004, he won re-election for a final five- year term, which is expected to end after this December’s general elections.

Rather than allow the democratic process to continue, he has decided to create a crisis from which he hopes to benefit.

Niger’s electoral commission has set parliamentary elections for August 20 – two weeks after the proposed date for a controversial referendum.

The referendum asking whether the president should be able to seek a third term in office has divided Niger. The Constitutional Court has twice ruled that the referendum cannot be held unless it is passed by parliament.

But the BBC’s Idy Baraou in the capital, Niamey, says it will be difficult for Tandja’s supporters to gain the three-quarters of parliamentary seats they need to pass a referendum bill.

One of the president’s main allies, former Prime Minister Hama Amadou, on Friday announced that he was forming his own party.

Another party in his ruling coalition left three weeks ago over the third term issue.

The president has not yet publicly commented on the latest court ruling, which was made on June 12.

But the state-controlled TV, which is seen as a government mouthpiece, has strongly condemned the ruling that banned the referendum scheduled for August 4.

Moumouni Hamadou, Chairman of the National Independent Electoral Commission (Ceni), on Friday told Radio France Internationale that the ruling was “clear – it binds all public and military authorities.”

“The Ceni has therefore decided to head straight for an early legislative election,” he said.

Tandja was first elected in 1999. His supporters say he has brought economic growth and so deserved the right to seek re-election.

President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua last month dispatched a high-powered delegation led by former Head of State, General Abdulsalami Abubakar (rtd.), to convey to President Mamadou Tandja the concern of the federal government and ECOWAS, over recent political development in Niger Republic.

Other members of the delegation are the President of the ECOWAS Commission, Dr. Muhammad Ibn Chambas, Minister of State in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Mr. Bagudu Hirse and the Special Adviser to the President on Foreign Affairs, Ambassador Jibrin Chinade.

President Yar’Adua who is also the current Chairman of the Council of Heads of State and Government of ECOWAS, charged the delegation to seek a peaceful resolution to the current political problems in Niger Republic.

The proposal for a referendum was first floated in May 2009. Beginning in late 2008, several supporters of President Tandja began a campaign to extend his term of office. Opposition from political opponents was swift, with dueling marches in Niamey in December 2008. Supporters of Tandja resorted to the slogan of his 2004 re-election campaign, “Tazarch�”, which means “continuation” or “continuity” in Hausa: supporters were quickly dubbed “Tazarchistes” and opponents “Anti-Tazarchistes”.

Demonstrations were held throughout Niger, while political committees were created, headed by supporters of Tandja outside government. Niamey politicians Boubacar Mazou and Anassara Dogari headed the Tazarche commitee, and Tahoua based businessman Aboubacar Dan Duba�.

In January the Prime Minister asserted that all elections would go on as scheduled, including the Presidential election, which, by law, must take place before December 22, 2009, the five-year anniversary of Tandja’s second five-year election as President.

The 1999 constitution made the serving of more than two terms impossible (article 36), and the revision of that article illegal by any means (article 136). Prime Minister Seyni Oumarou reiterated on January 22 that all scheduled elections would go ahead before the end of 2009.

In March, during his meetings with French President Sarkozy, Tandja explicitly stated that he would not seek a third term.

Then, in early May 2009, when questioned by the press on his visit to Agadez to begin peace talks with Tuareg rebels, Tandja announced: “The people have demanded I remain.” Thereafter it was announced he would seek a referendum to scrap the current constitution and create the Sixth Republic of Niger.

According to the 1999 Constitution of Niger, the President may call a referendum on any matter except for a revision of those elements of the Constitution outlined in Article 136-including the presidential term limits.

The Constitutional Court of Niger and the National Assembly of Niger must advise the president, but there is no provision that the president must heed their advice.

On May 25 2009, the Constitutional Court, made up of appointed judges, released a ruling that any referendum to create a new constitution would be unconstitutional, and further would be a violation of the oath the President had taken on the Koran (a serious matter in Niger, which is overwhelmingly Muslim).

On June 5, the President and the Council of Ministers of Niger approved plans for the referendum, titled: Referendum on the Project of the VIth Republic. Campaigning would take place from July 13, 2009 to August 2, 2009. The President established a commission to create a draft constitutional law upon which the population would vote. The Independent National Electoral Commission (CENI) was ordered to oversee preparations for voting. Electors would be able to choose “yes” or “no” to the text: “Do you approve of the Constitutional project submitted for your assent?”

Large opposition rallies were held in May and June, attended by a broad coalition of political parties, civil society groups and trade unions. These included former Prime Ministers Hama Amadou and Mahamadou Issoufou, former President and current President of the Assembly Mahamane Ousmane, and former President of the Assembly and party leader, Moumouni Adamou Djermakoye.

Moumouni Djermakoye died of a heart attack during the second of these rallies, on June 14. These were followed by a threatened general strike of all seven of the main Nigerien trades union bodies, the first time these groups had announced a joint strike action. On May 31, a pro-referendum rally at the Governor’s residence in the southern town of Dosso was attacked by a mob, and rioting lasted for several hours in the city centre. Opposition was also voiced by the governments of the United States, Canada, regional body ECOWAS, as well as the President of Niger’s neighbour and regional power, Nigeria. ECOWAS threatened economic sanctions should Niger change the constitution within six months of a national election, sent a commission led by the Nigerian President to consult with Niamey, and placed Niger on its upcoming meeting agenda, beside the coups in Guinea-Bissau, Guinea, and Mauritania.

On June 22 the ECOWAS summit announced that member states would impose sanctions on Niger should the President attempt to revise the constitution before the next presidential election. Mahamane Toure, ECOWAS Commissioner for Political Affairs, Peace and Security, was quoted by AFP as saying that Tandja “has tried to keep himself in power by non-democratic means. For us, there is no legal alternative left for him.”

On June 12 2009, the Constitutional Court ruled against Tandja’s referendum proposal, following a non-binding advisement to the President the month before. This time the ruling was in response to a case brought by a coalition of opposition groups, which included the CDS, a governing partner in the previous government, without which the MNSD could not gain a majority in the Assembly. In such cases, the Constitution specifies that rulings of the Constitutional Court are binding and may not be appealed thereafter; the Independent National Electoral Commission announced that National Assembly elections would take place on August 20, and no referendum would be voted upon.

On June 19 President Tandja called Council of the Republic, a consultative body of all major government leaders. This was the first time this body was called.

On June 21 President Tandja released a statement saying he would honour the Court and Electoral Commission rulings, and would suspend any effort to change the constitution until after the National Assembly elections on August 20.

Despite the June 21 statement by the President, on the evening of June 24, Minister of Communications Ben Omar released a statement by the President, demanding the Constitutional Court rescind its decision, citing a 2002 statement by the same body that the President was able to call referenda.

In apparent response, the Democratic and Social Convention (CDS) of former President Mahamane Ousmane announced its final break with the MNSD government, withdrawing from the government coalition and pulling its eight members from the Nigerien Council of Ministers. In a statement, the CDS demanded the President definitively submit to the Court’s decision. The party also announced the creation of its own opposition coalition, the MDD.

In a televised and radio speech to the nation the following evening (the 26th, after Friday prayers), President Tandja announced he was dissolving the government and would rule by decree.

On June 27, the leader of the main opposition party, Mahamadou Issoufou, denounced what he called a coup, and called on Nigeriens to resist by all legal means, citing Article 13 of the 1999 Constitution which mandates officials to ignore “manifestly illegal orders.”

The military, which had previously declared itself neutral, began patrolling the streets of the capital after 18:00 hours, prior to the President’s declaration of emergency powers.

The Chairman of the 66 member decentralized organization which operates and certifies all elections, Niger National Independent Election Commission, Moumouni Hamidou stated, following the June 18 Court decision, that they would not hold the August 4 Referendum, and were preparing almost seven million voting cards for the August 20 legislative elections.

Despite this, Nigerien Minister of the Interior Albade Abouba announced on June 28, following President Tandja’s taking emergency powers, that both the August 4 Referendum and the August 20 elections would go ahead.



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