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3483Niger’s President Extends Tenure

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  • Greg Cannon
    Aug 7, 2009
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      Niger’s President Extends Tenure
      Published: August 7, 2009

      DAKAR, Senegal — Mamadou Tandja, president of the vast desert nation of Niger, has secured another three years in office and unlimited runs at future terms in a referendum that opposition officials have called a coup d’état in all but name.

      Mr. Tandja, a 71-year-old former army colonel who had promised to step down after the second of his two terms expires this December, thanked voters even before the official results were announced Friday by the country’s electoral commission.

      Giant posters appeared in Niamey, the capital, by Thursday, expressing the leader’s gratitude for the “renewed confidence” of voters. The commission said Mr. Tandja’s proposal for a new constitution received the approval of 92.5 percent of voters, in an election that drew a 68 percent turnout.

      Opposition figures said the results could not be trusted and vowed to continue the protests that began when Mr. Tandja announced his intention to stay in power in May and have drawn tens of thousands of people to the streets.

      Mr. Tandja’s move to extend his tenure, condemned by the United States and the European Union, was seen as another setback for democracy in the region and the nation, which had taken halting steps toward political openness after a post-colonial history marked by military coups.

      In Niamey, the center of opposition in a country where some 70 percent are illiterate, Mr. Tandja’s determination to stay in power was greeted with hostility by leading figures in civil society, who called for a boycott of the vote. The country’s constitutional court ruled he could not hold the referendum, but Mr. Tandja then dissolved the court, in June, and replaced its members. He also dismissed Parliament, arrested opposition figures and took steps to silence the press.

      “The numbers they gave are totally false,” Mohammed Bazoum, vice-president of the Nigérien Party for Democracy and Socialism, said Friday. “The only people who voted, were those who voted ‘yes.’ Nobody felt the need to accomplish the citizen’s act of voting,” he said, explaining that opponents did not want to give legitimacy to a vote the constitutional court had already deemed illegal.

      In the new constitution pushed by Mr. Tandja and approved in the vote he called, he is named as “the exclusive holder of executive power,” a formula opposition figures say strengthens his power, with few checks. Mr. Tandja is thought to be relatively impervious to international sanctions because of alliances with Libya and China.

      Analysts attempting to explain the vote noted the strong tendency of rural voters to follow the wishes of the man in power.

      “I’m disappointed but not surprised,” said Robert Charlick of Cleveland State University, an American expert on Niger. “Niger doesn’t have strong democratic institutions. The pattern of personal rule is very strong. That a leader will seek to perpetuate his term in office, and the benefits derived from being in office, is not surprising,” said Mr. Charlick, adding that “I’m sure almost nobody in the countryside had access to or read the new constitution.”