A "yes" vote in Tuesday's referendum could allow Niger's President Mamadou Tandja, 71, to stay in office for three more years and then run for re-election with no term limits.
AFP - Niger will vote Tuesday in a referendum on a new constitution that would allow President Mamadou Tandja to remain in power until 2012, despite strong opposition at home and fears abroad of instability in the west African country.
Huge posters of Tandja were plastered throughout the capital Niamey and other main cities as state media called on voters to say "yes" to changing the constitution so the 71-year-old can stay in office for three more years. After that he can run for re-election if he chooses with no term limits.
Under the current constitution, Tandja must step down at the end of his second five-year term on December 22, after a presidential poll.
In pushing his aim to cling to power, calling it the people's will, Tandja dissolved both parliament and the constitutional court which opposed his referendum plan.
He has assumed emergency powers, ruling the vast country on the edge of the Sahara desert by decree.
The opposition has slammed Tandja's action as akin to a coup d'etat, and the international community is worried that Niger, which has enjoyed rare stability over the past decade, could plunge into turmoil.
The former colonial power France along with the African Union and the United Nations has urged Tandja to abandon the referendum and not trample on Niger's constitution,
The European Union, which has frozen aid to the country where 80 percent live on subsistence farming, continually threatened by drought and locusts, said there were "grave violations of core democratic values and the principles of the rule of law."
But Tandja has defied all, claiming he is defending Niger's independence and sovereignty and the will of its 15 million people.
"I won't listen to anyone trying to prevent me from attaining the objectives of the people of Niger," said Tandja late last month, stressing that he did not come to power to "serve international interests."
The former colonel has also defied criticism from his opponents at home, banning strikes and street demonstrations. And on Thursday Niger's authorities issued an international arrest warrant for the president's main rival, former prime minister Hama Amadou, who spent 10 months in jail for alleged corruption.
Amadou was freed conditionally in April to allow him to seek medical treatment abroad after his health took a turn for the worse. Amadou, whose whereabouts were not clear, has accused Tandja of trying to bar him from running in the next presidential election.
In northern Niger, the most radical of the armed Tuareg rebel movements, the Front of Forces for Recovery (FFR), has warned it would disrupt the referendum, resorting to violence if necessary.
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon called on all sides Friday to refrain from violence over the disputed referendum and restated his support for "an inclusive process to resolve the current crisis peacefully and in conformity with the country's democratic values."
Observers however question what has happened to democracy in Niger.
"When you want to co-opt the presidency for three years, what's left of democracy?" commented former justice minister Soli Abdouahamane.
"This is not the sort of democracy we wish" for Niger, a top representative from the regional Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) -- which has threatened sanctions -- told AFP.
"Everyone tells him (Tandja) to drop his referendum but, in the end, Niger will be totally isolated from the international community," said Djibo Hamani, a history professor at Niamey university.
Date created : 2009-08-02