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Voters urged to say 'yes' in controversial referendum

Video by Melissa BELL , Eric JOSSET


Latest update : 2009-08-04

Niger votes on Tuesday 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, despite strong opposition at home and abroad.

REUTERS - Niger will vote on Tuesday on extending President Mamadou Tandja's term by three years, in a referendum the opposition and the international community have criticised as undemocratic and a threat to national stability.

Tandja, who has ruled the Saharan state since 1999, is asking for three more years to oversee large foreign-backed investments including a Chinese oil deal and French uranium mine -- a move which requires the constitution to be changed.

His second and final term expires at the end of 2009, a deadline which the highest court has said cannot be altered.

But Tandja argues the population wants him to stay to finish the projects which will bring billions of dollars into the country, one of the poorest in the world.

Security forces said they would close Niger's borders for 24 hours from midnight on Monday while voting goes ahead.

"The government has made provisions to ensure a smooth election to enable every citizen to exercise his right in a calm and secure environment," Tandja said in a television broadcast.

"I want to ensure that nothing obstructs the sovereign will of the people."

Protests ignored


Tandja has shown that he will not be swayed by protests either within Niger or from foreign countries.

In June he dissolved the constitutional court and assumed the power to rule by decree. He responded to international criticism by saying he was answerable only to the people of Niger.

Opposition leader Mahamadou Issoufou called on the estimated 6 million registered voters to boycott the plebiscite.

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

Major donor, the European Union has already suspended the payment of one tranche of aid, and warned that Tandja's pursuit of an extended period in the presidency could have "serious consequences" for its cooperation with Niger.

"The dissolution of the constitutional court and the exercise of government powers without parliamentary control are grave violations of core democratic values and the principles of the rule of law," said Sweden, which holds the revolving presidency of the EU.

The United Nations appealed for calm during voting.

"The Secretary-General calls on the people of Niger to exercise utmost restraint and urges all parties to refrain from any form of violence," said a U.N. statement.

Date created : 2009-08-04