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Voters head to polls as opposition urges boycott

Text by FRANCE 24

Latest update : 2009-08-04

Niger's citizens are voting in a referendum on a new constitution that would allow President Mamadou Tandja to remain in power until 2012 and then run for re-election indefinitely, despite strong opposition at home and abroad.

Voters in Niger are heading to the polls to vote in a controversial constitutional referendum that would allow President Mamadou Tandja to run for election indefinitely, despite vocal protests from the political opposition and abroad.

Tandja formally marked the start of voting by casting his ballot at a polling booth at city hall in the capital, Niamey.

A majority “yes” vote on the new constitution would repeal term limits to allow Tandja to remain in power past the Dec. 22 expiration of his current term until 2012, and then stand for re-election indefinitely.

Tandja, 71, dissolved both the country’s parliament and its constitutional court in June for opposing the referendum. He subsequently declared a state of emergency, a move that has allowed him to assume emergency powers and rule by decree.  

His actions led to street protests and strikes in Niamey and elsewhere, and the opposition has urged a massive boycott of the referendum.

Opposition leader Mahamadou Issoufou launched a final appeal on Tuesday for the country’s six million eligible voters to boycott the vote, calling it “illegal”.

"The CFDR (anti-referendum coalition) reiterates its call for all citizens of Niger, all sincere democrats and all patriots, to mobilise against this illegal referendum," he said.


'Kalashnikovs on the ground'

The opposition has made clear that it is prepared to use “all legal means” to try to prevent the poll from going ahead, says FRANCE 24’s special correspondent in Niamey, Melissa Bell.

But as voting gets under way things in Niamey are very calm, with a few of the hundreds of soldiers called out to guard the capital’s polling stations “dozing quietly, Kalashnikovs on the ground”, Bell says.


The slow but steady stream of voters leaving the polling centres almost all say they voted for the amendment, since most of those against the change are likely heeding the opposition’s calls for a boycott.


Bell says it is “almost beyond doubt” that Tandja will get the constitutional change he is looking for.


“If things carry on this way, what is certain is that, by the end of the day, President Tandja will have won the massive ‘yes’ vote that he called for,” she says.

And Tandja says 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,” he said in late July.    

A former military colonel, Tandja has ruled this poverty-stricken west African nation of 15 million since 1999.

Managing the media

The government has moved to assert more control over the country’s independent media in the run-up to the referendum. Journalists now fear that they are being “increasingly muzzled”, Bell says.

Just a few weeks ahead of today’s vote, Tandja changed the legislation governing the council that regulates the media, handing much of the power to the council’s president.  

Niger’s press in the past decade has enjoyed relative freedom, with some 60 independent publications and 26 independent radio stations now operating in the country. But the referendum has tensions running high.  

“Many journalists [have] spent time in prison for doing their jobs,” Bell says. “Many now fear that, after the referendum, they could be shut down entirely.”

Global concern

Niger’s former colonial master France has joined both the African Union and the United Nations in urging Niger to abandon the referendum. The European Union has frozen aid to the country and warned of “grave violations of core democratic values and the principles of the rule of law”.

Although Niger is rich in uranium, its people are among the poorest on earth, ranked fourth from last by the UN development index.

Polls are scheduled to close at 7 pm local time (GMT+1). The head of the country's electoral commission, Moumouni Hamidou, says results should be out within five days.

Date created : 2009-08-04