x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Niger polls open for referendum

People of Niger go to the polls in a controversial constitutional referendum intended to pave the way for the president to remain in power indefinitely.

People of Niger go to the polls today in a controversial constitutional referendum intended to pave the way for President Mamadou Tandja to remain in power indefinitely. The outcome of the referendum will determine whether the strongman since 1999 of this impoverished west African country steps aside by year end or rules for as long as he wishes to. His plans to hold a referendum against fierce opposition have touched off domestic protests and raised international concerns of instability in the country of 15 million people.

Around six million voters are eligible to cast their ballots in the vast and arid country surrounded by Algeria, Benin, Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali and Nigeria. More than 19,000 polling stations open at 8am local time through 7pm. Under the current constitution, the 71-year-old former military colonel Tandja must step down at the end of his second five-year term on December 22, after a presidential poll.

In pushing his aim to cling to power, calling it the people's will, Mr Tandja dissolved both parliament and the constitutional court which opposed his referendum plan. He has assumed emergency powers, ruling the vast country on the edge of the Sahara desert by decree. A majority "yes" vote will give Tandja a further three years in office, after which he can run for elections indefinitely. The opposition has slammed Mr 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.

Niger is rich in uranium, but its people are counted among some of the poorest on earth, ranked fourth from the bottom of the United Nations development index. The former colonial power France along with the African Union and the United Nations has urged Mr Tandja to abandon the referendum and not trample on Niger's constitution. The European Union, which has frozen aid to the country where 80 per cent live on subsistence farming, continually threatened by drought and locusts, said there were "grave violations of core democratic values and the principles of the rule of law."

But Mr Tandja has defied all, claiming he is defending Niger's sovereignty and the will of its 15 million people. "I won't listen to anyone trying to prevent me from attaining the objectives of the people of Niger," said Mr Tandja late last month, stressing that he did not come to power to "serve international interests." Soldiers and police in Niger voted yesterday on the eve of the referendum. The security forces and firefighters turned out in large numbers to cast ballots so that they can maintain security on Tuesday.

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. * AFP