AFP - Niger on Wednesday began counting ballots from a constitutional referendum aimed at extending President Mamadou Tandja's long rule, after weeks of opposition protests then clashes at the polls.
Early partial results released by the electoral commission from about just one percent of the polling station in Niger's constitutional referendum gave a nod to Tandja's bid to stay in power.
Voters in the uranium-rich but deeply poor country were called to the polls on Tuesday in a referendum over whether Tandja, a former colonel who has been in office since 1999, could be allowed to rule indefinitely.
Otherwise his second five-year mandate expires next December.
The head of the independent electoral agency (CENI) in the west African country, Moumouni Hamidou, said voter turn-out ranged between 40 percent and 90 percent, peaking in rural areas.
But the opposition, which had called for a boycott of the referendum, said the commission's figures were not realistic.
"It's ridiculous, participation did not even reach seven percent," Marou Amadou, a member of the umbrella opposition coalition opposed to the referendum, the Forces for the Defense of Democracy (FDD), told AFP.
According to early results collated so far from 200 of the 19,000 polling stations and broadcast on state media, the "yes" vote carries the day, although turnout was generally low in urban areas.
In a northern village, Dilma, more than 70 percent of the registered electorate went to cast their ballots, with 96.5 percent of them stating they were in favour of a new constitution which would scrape presidential term limits.
In Baogueta, another rural community in the south, 94 percent of voters said "yes" to Tandja's proposed constitution with a turnout rate of 84 percent.
But urban centres whose results have been officially released so far show a low turnout.
In the northern mining city of Arlit, only 30.8 percent of eligible voters bothered to cast their ballots. Of those who did, more than 92 percent voted in favour of a new constitution.
Tuesday's voting was marred by clashes between anti-referendum activists and security forces, with police firing teargas to disperse protestors who tried to block access to polling stations in the small town of Illela, in the western Tahoua region.
The referendum has provoked fierce criticism both inside Niger and abroad, but Tandja has forged ahead, raising international concerns of instability in a country that borders on seven others, including Chad and Nigeria.
Tandja, who defied both parliament and the constitutional court to hold the vote, insisted that by holding the referendum he was responding to the will of the people.
He has assumed emergency powers, ruling this vast country on the edge of the Sahara desert by decree.
"I am fully satisfied that I have done my duty as president of the republic in the face of the demands of the people of Niger," Tandja said in Niamey aafter he cast his vote.
"It's a great day, our wish has been fulfilled," he added.
Around six million of the country's 15 million population were eligible to vote.
Several opposition activists were arrested in the southwestern town of Dosso for staging protests on Tuesday.