May 10, 2009 / 2:12 PM / 10 years ago

Niger referendum plan risks instability - party

* Opposition mounting to planned presidential referendum

* Plebiscite would allow Tandja to seek third term

By Abdoulaye Massalatchi

NIAMEY, May 10 (Reuters) - A member of Niger’s ruling coalition said at the weekend President Mamadou Tandja’s planned referendum to change the constitution so he can stand for a third term may destabilise the country.

Tandja’s government announced on Friday that the 70-year old president, whose second and final term expires this year, would hold a plebiscite to allow him to run in polls scheduled for December. It did not give a date for the referendum.

“Any attempt to ... bypass or change the constitution will inevitably engender a grave threat to peace and stability,” political party the Nigerien Alliance for Democracy and Progress (ANDP) said in a statement.

“The ANDP appeals to President Tandja’s sense of patriotism in order to avoid in Niger an uncertain situation with unforeseeable consequences,” it said late on Saturday.

Tandja, who came to power in 1999 elections and won a second term with 66 percent of the vote five years later, is trying to end a two-year rebellion by nomadic Tuaregs in the uranium-mining north of the country which has destabilised swathes of the Sahara where al Qaeda cells also operate.

“The ANDP is opposed to any violation of the current constitution; it cannot vouch for any form of calling into question constitutional order,” said the party, a junior coalition member.

Around 20,000 people protested against the planned referendum on Saturday in a rally organised by main opposition party the Niger Social Democratic Party, which has urged political parties, trade unions and civil society groups to resist the move.

Communications Minister Mohamed Ben Omar, who announced the referendum plan on Friday, said the president would take the advice of parliament and the constitutional court on the idea but not be bound by their responses.

Among other international firms, French nuclear energy group Areva CEPFi.PA is investing heavily in Niger, one of the world’s poorest countries.

Its Imouaren project, which it expects to become Africa’s biggest uranium mine, will cost an initial 1.2 billion euros ($1.61 billion) and is scheduled to start production in 2012. (Writing by Daniel Magnowski; editing by Philippa Fletcher)

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