AFP - President Mamadou Tandja's bid to cling to power went a step further after he scrapped Niger's constitutional court about a month after he dissolved a parliament that had challenged him.
Tandja, a 71-year-old retired army colonel whose legal tenure expires in December, is fighting to retain the country's top job through a controversial constitutional change, which has met stiff political and legal resistance.
The country's highest court three times ruled against his plans to change the basic law to let him seek a third term five-year in office.
But on Monday night he issued a decree dissolving the constitutional court, just days after he assumed emergency powers to allow him to rule by decree in the face of growing opposition to his plan for a referendum to amend the constitution which stipulates a two-term presidential term limit.
He claims he took that decision on Friday because the independence of the arid and landlocked west African nation was under threat.
The court became the first victim of the emergency powers that allow Tandja virtually single-handedly to rule the uranium-rich but deeply poor and largely arid country of 15 million people on the southern edge of the Sahara desert.
The Democratic and Social Convention (CDS), Tandja's main backers during the past decade, when Niger enjoyed unprecedented stability since its independence from France in 1960, pulled out of government in a rebellion last week.
But it did not take him long to replace the seven ministers from the CDS with his faithfuls.
The opposition Front for the Defence of Democracy (FDD) coalition sees Tandja's actions as akin to a "coup". On Tuesday, ahead of a nationwide strike planned for Wednesday, the FDD spoke of the country being a "state of emergency".
Its spokesman Marou Amadou, one of the strongest foes of Tandja's bid for a third term, was arrested Monday night, becoming the first political enemy to be detained.
His colleagues in the FDD on Tuesday demanded his release. They said he was accused of conspiracy against the authority of the state, alleged incitement of disobedience of the security forces and bids to demoralise the military.
The former colonial ruler France on Tuesday finally broke its silence on the simmering crisis in Niger and condemned the dissolution of the constitutional court as illegitimate.
The dissolution of the court "constitutes a negative signal for democracy and the stability of the country," the French foreign affairs ministry said in a statement.
The regional bloc, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), has threatened Niger with sanctions or suspension if Tandja goes ahead with the referendum.
African Union heads of states meet on Wednesday in the Libyan seaside city of Sirte, where Niger was mentioned Tuesday by AU commission chief Jean Ping as one of the "extremely worrying" African hotspots likely to come up for discussion.
What remains unknown for now is the ultimate action of the military in a country with a past history of military take-overs. But on Monday night the military issued a statement restating its neutrality and urging the political protagonists to dialogue and healing.
The president's mandate expires in December and a presidential election is due in November, but he is trying to push for a referendum ahead of that date so that he can run.