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Troops vote on eve of controversial referendum


Latest update : 2009-08-03

Despite the opposition's last efforts to halt proceedings, Niger's security forces have turned out en masse to vote on the eve of a referendum that could allow President Mamadou Tandja to serve a third term and run for re-election thereafter.

AFP - Soldiers and police in Niger voted Monday on the eve of a constitutional referendum convened to pave the way for President Mamadou Tandja to remain in power indefinitely.

The security forces and fire-fighters turned out in large numbers to cast ballots across the vast, arid west African country, so that they can maintain security on Tuesday when civilians are called to the polls.

Some six million people are registered to vote in Tuesday's referendum which is being held despite fierce opposition at home and fears abroad of instability in a country that borders on seven nations, including Chad and Nigeria.

Moumouni Hamidou, head of the country's electoral commission (CENI), said all was ready for polling and that the results should be out within five days, before they get a final stamp of approval from the constitutional court.

"CENI will do everything to announce the results within five days," he told a news conference.

Under the current constitution, Tandja, 71, must step down at the end of his second five-year term on December 22, after a presidential poll.

But in his determination to cling to power, calling it the will of the people, he has dissolved parliament and replaced the constitutional court judges who repeatedly opposed his referendum scheme.

Tandja has assumed emergency powers, ruling the vast country on the edge of the Sahara desert by decree.

A "yes" vote to the adoption of the new constitution will allow the former military colonel to stay in office for three more years. After that he can run for re-election if he chooses with no term limits.

His plan has led to street protests and strikes in Niamey and other cities, as well as arousing international concern. Several protests were banned.

In spite of a history of military takeovers prior to 1999 when Tandja first swept to power, soldiers have adopted a neutral attitude in the latest tussle between the president and the opposition.

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.

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

"Our duty as citizens is to defend the current constitution," he said.

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.

Interior Minister Albade Abouba at the weekend warned that any violent attempts to influence the outcome of the vote -- during or after the polls -- would be dealt with severely.

"Firm instructions were given at all levels to prevent and severely repress any acts that could disrupt the vote," he said in a statement.

Most of Niger's 15 million people are deeply poor in the uranium-rich country, which trades mainly with former colonial power France.

France in mid-July denounced Tandja's "repeated attacks on democracy" and the African Union, the United Nations and the 15-nation Economic Community of West African States have all tried to dissuade him from staging the poll.

A handful of nearby countries have sent observers, Hamidou said, without specifying their affiliation, but none of the major power brokers have done so.

The European Union, which has already suspended budgetary aid, on Friday threatened Niamey with "serious consequences" for the rest of European aid to Niger.

Date created : 2009-08-03