NIAMEY, Niger – His opponents call it the “slow-motion coup.”
Despite promising to step down in December at the end of his two-term limit, the leader of this uranium-rich desert nation is waging a fierce political battle to stay in power, and critics say he has morphed from democrat to dictator to do it.
Over a span of several months, 71-year-old President Mamadou Tandja has imposed rule by decree, cracked down on opponents and the press, and dismantled parliament and the constitutional court, which oppose his plan and together represented the last real checks on his rule.
On Tuesday, a controversial referendum could remove the last obstacle in Tandja’s way – the constitution – replacing it with a new one that does away with term-limits and simultaneously gives him greatly boosted powers and an unprecedented three-year extension of his rule.
“He took the oath of office swearing on the Qur’an to protect our nation’s democratic institutions,” opposition leader Mahamadou Issoufou said. “But instead, he is destroying them.”
Issoufou compared the moves to Niger’s three coups since independence from France half a century ago. The only difference: “This time, it’s happening in slow-motion.”
The ease with which Niger’s democratic institutions have been swept aside marks a setback for a continent struggling to shake off strongman rulers. The region has already been hit by coups in Guinea, Mauritania and Madagascar in the last year.
If the referendum succeeds, it may sow more instability in a country where a simmering northern rebellion launched over access to uranium wealth only eased this year because the insurgency split into three rival factions – one of which has threatened violence if Tuesday’s vote goes ahead. In the same region, al-Qaida has kidnapped several foreigners, including the U.N.’s special envoy to the country, and plans are afoot to build Africa’s largest uranium mine.
Niger’s capacity to produce uranium became well known when the U.S. accused Saddam Hussein of having tried to purchase yellowcake for Iraq’s nuclear weapons program in the run-up to the U.S. invasion. The accusation turned out to be false.
Opponents say Tandja is clinging to power so his family, clan and entourage can benefit from an influx of wealth from large-scale projects that are under way. Tandja denies it and says he is only obeying the will of his people, who he feels want him to finish projects to develop one of the poorest nations in the world.
“The people see the future and they are asking their president to continue to serve, so he completes this work,” Tandja told The Associated Press in an interview Friday at his residence, a complex of low-rise sand-brown buildings surrounded by palm trees. “But the constitution does not permit me to stay … that’s why the people demand a new one. We need to find a way.”
A handful of African leaders have failed in attempts to extend their rule but more have succeeded. Similar referendums succeeded in Algeria, Cameroon, Chad, Gabon, Guinea, Namibia, Tunisia and Uganda.
“It’s an existential problem for many African heads of state,” said Mahamane Ousmane, who led parliament until Tandja dissolved it in May because lawmakers opposed the referendum. “They can’t imagine a normal life outside the palace. They say, ‘Will I be in exile? Will I be in prison? What will I do?”‘
Ousmane defeated Tandja in a 1993 poll and served as president until he was toppled in a 1996 coup. Today he lives in a modest home on a dirt road in the sleepy capital.
Battered by periodic drought, food shortages and desertification, Niger has the world’s highest birthrate, stepping up pressure on scarce resources. In Niamey, camels wander past bland brown downtown buildings. Many residents are so poor they can’t afford tables to eat on, dining instead with bowls on potholed, dirt-caked streets.
International donors – who fund more than half the budget – view the referendum as illegal and may freeze aid if it proceeds. The European Union suspended $9.3 million (C6.5 million) in support and could cut $643 million (C450 million) more pledged through 2013.
Tandja, however, told The AP he was “afraid of nothing.”
“I count on myself, my people, my country,” he said. “We can’t live on aid eternally. If you want to give it, give it, but there can be no blackmail.”
Any influence foreign donors may have has been undermined by several huge new projects that have buoyed Tandja and are unlikely to grind to a halt. Among them: a US$5 billion (C3.5 billion) deal with China to build an oil refinery and extract new crude from the desert, a US$1.7 billion (C1.2 billion) accord with French nuclear giant Areva to build the world’s second biggest uranium mine and a hydroelectric dam financed with US$50 million (C35 million) from the Islamic Development Bank.
“In the short term, it means he doesn’t need to listen to anyone,” said Alex Vines, an Africa specialist at the London-based think-tank Chatham House. “More resources make staying in power more attractive. But to manage them, you need strong institutions, and what’s happening in Niger is the erosion of core institutions.”
Tandja claims his actions are legal, but opponents say he could only rule by decree if Niger was under threat and parliament was in place to safeguard against abuse. Tandja dissolved the constitutional court – the only body that could judge such disputes – after it ruled the referendum illegal. He then replaced it with another court whose members he appointed.
The proposed new constitution would give him authority to name one third of a new 60-seat senate and the power to jail journalists who are deemed security threats without warning.
In a country where the U.N. says 70 per cent of adults are illiterate, many voters don’t know what’s at stake.
A roadside florist, Hama Alhassane, hasn’t seen the draft constitution and doesn’t know how it differs from the current one. But “whatever Tandja wants, I will do,” the 23-year-old said. “Because he is the state and we must do what the state demands.”
State media only carry pro-referendum messages. A private TV station that broadcast a statement critical of Tandja was temporarily shut down.
Thousands of opposition supporters have protested, but only twice, and lawyers and trade unions launched brief, ineffective strikes. Opposition leaders are calling for a boycott but that may make it even more likely the referendum will pass.
Tandja vowed to respect the outcome, telling The AP: “If they say no, I will go.”