AFP - Niger has banned a general strike called for Thursday and planned weekend demonstrations as President Mamadou Tandja flouted international pressure to call off a referendum that would extend his tenure.
The west African nation's seven main trade unions called a 48-hour strike on Wednesday but a Niamey court ruled the action illegal.
"The unions' strike was declared illegal because its motives are not proper labour demands but purely political," Niger's Communication Minister told Ben Omar told Radio France Internationale (RFI).
The unions said they knew nothing of the court order and maintained the strike call, describing Omar's argument as "fallacious".
But midway through the day, the strike action was yet to kick off. It was business as usual particularly in the capital, with banks, shops and markets operating as normal.
Issoufou Sidibe, secretary general of the Confederation of Democratic Workers of Niger (CDTN) claimed that "thousands of workers in all sectors are following the strike, especially in the countryside".
In a related development, authorities have slapped a ban on opposition street protests planned for Sunday due to the "prevailing social climate" in the country, according to the organisers.
Under the current law, the 71-year-old former colonel should step down on December 22 when his second elected five-year term expires, but he reiterated his plan on state television late Wednesday and said it was the will of the people.
Tandja has called a constitutional referendum for August 4, which if passed could allow him to stay in power until at least 2012, after which he could run for office for as many terms as he wants.
Tandja has assumed emergency powers to rule by decree and dissolved the constitutional court for ruling three times against his plan, as well as the parliament, which also opposed him.
Pressure had been piling up on him -- both at home and from abroad -- to abandon the referendum plan amid fears that the vast country, which has enjoyed rare stability over the past decade, could plunge into turmoil.
But Tandja has defied all, vowing to defend the country's independence and sovereignty, claiming the idea of the referendum is a fulfilment of the wishes of the people of Niger.
"They want me to go back (on referendum plan) because of international pressure, but I will never do that," Tandja said on state television late Wednesday night.
"I wont listen to anyone trying to prevent me from attaining the objectives of the people of Niger," said Tandja, stressing that he did not come to power to "serve international interests."
Envoys from the United Nations and African regional bodies who met Tandja on Tuesday expressed deep concern at events in Niger.
The unions, who called on public, private and informal sector workers to join the strike to send a "clear" message to Tandja to call off the referendum, said the ban had not been communicated to them.
In June, thousands of workers staged a one-day strike demanding that Tandja respect the constitution of the impoverished nation.
After he defied the constitutional court, Tandja assumed the emergency powers that allow him to rule this west African country of 15 million people by decree.
The opposition has slammed Tandja's action as akin to a coup d'etat.
A regional bloc, the Economic Comunity of West African States (ECOWAS), has threatened the country with economic sanctions and diplomatic isolation if Tandja presses ahead with the referendum.
The European Union, one of Niger's main donors, has frozen aid to the deeply poor west African country.