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Video by Melissa BELL , Eric JOSSET

Text by FRANCE 24

Latest update : 2009-08-04

Security forces have voted early in Niger, even as the opposition launched a final appeal for a boycott of Tuesday's constitutional referendum, which could allow President Mamadou Tandja to remain in office until 2012 and then run for re-election.

A large contingent of army forces and police turned out on Monday to vote a day early in a controversial referendum that could allow Niger’s President Mamadou Tandja to extend his mandate, despite calls for a boycott from the political opposition.

The security forces are voting one day before the rest of the six-million-strong electorate heads to the polls on August 4 to decide on adopting a new constitution that would allow Tandja to remain in power past the expiration of his term in December and then stand for re-election again in 2012.

Prime Minister Seini Oumarou said Sunday that the security forces are voting early "to be available to ensure the security of civilians who will vote on August 4".

"The atmosphere is very calm, but almost unusually so," said FRANCE 24’s special correspondent in Niamey, Melissa Bell. "Some people say that’s because the government is very much in control of the situation, others claim that this is, in fact, the calm before the storm."

Tandja, 71, has dissolved both the country’s parliament and its constitutional court for opposing the referendum and has declared a state of emergency, a move that allows him to rule by decree.

His actions have led to street protests and strikes in Niamey and elsewhere, although Tandja insists that extending his mandate is what the people want.

"I won't listen to anyone trying to prevent me from fulfilling the objectives of the people of Niger," Tandja said in late July.

For its part, the opposition is planning a massive boycott of the vote and has made clear that it is prepared "to use all legal means to try to prevent this poll from taking place," said Bell.

Opposition leader Mahamadou Issoufou on Sunday launched a final appeal for public action "to cause the illegal referendum to fail".

And the government is worried. Interior Minister Albade Abouba warned on Sunday that anyone who tried to disrupt the poll would be dealt with severely.

Press under pressure

A group of journalists were questioned by police on Monday for publishing a series of articles alleging that Tandja’s son had accepted kickbacks in exchange for issuing permits to extract uranium.

Niger’s press has so far enjoyed relative freedom, with some 60 independent publications operating in the country. But the referendum has tensions running high throughout the country.

Rather than wait for arrest warrants to be issued, editors at the satirical Canard Déchainé turned themselves in to police. After several hours of questioning, they were released and allowed to return to work.

"This referendum is nothing more than a fraud," said Alzouma Zakari, publication director for Opinions. It is "aimed at covering up a serious case of embezzlement", he said.

Although it remains unclear what tactics the opposition will use to derail Tuesday’s vote, said Bell, it is "the last chance for the opposition to make itself heard before [Tandja] has even more power."

Date created : 2009-08-03