NIAMEY, June 1 (Reuters) - Niger’s President Mamdou Tandja is pressing ahead with his bid to hold a referendum on a new constitution, a move that would extend his time in power.
Niger already produces 7.5 percent of the world’s uranium, and expects to grow as an exporter with several large foreign projects under way.
The referendum bid has run into opposition at home, even from some within Tandja’s ruling coalition, and abroad, where regional bodies are trying to maintain credibility and prevent further attacks on democracy after a series of coups in West Africa.
Here are some of the key issues and possible scenarios for one of West Africa’s poorest nations.
Despite a flurry of criticism — protests in the streets, a key defection from his political coalition and a ruling by the constitutional court that a referendum was illegal — Tandja confirmed at the weekend that his bid remained on track.
Alma Oumarou, the vice president of Tandja’s party, told local radio that a vote on a new constitution was feasible before legislative elections are held to replace the parliament Tandja dissolved last week.
These polls must take place within three months.
While the details of the new constitution are still sketchy, Tandja says he is seeking an extension of his rule for three years, during which he will lead a transition until a new, fully presidential, system of government is put in place.
Tandja wants to move Niger from a semi-presidential system, under which there is a prime minister who is nominated by the president but can only be removed by parliament, to a fully presidential system, which he sees as more stable.
He has also has said he will stay on due to popular demand, primarily to oversee the completion of projects, such as the Kandadji dam, an oil refinery in the east and bring Areva’s CEPFi.PA Imouraren uranium mine to production.
The rejection of Tandja’s bid to stay in power and change the constitution by Mahamane Ousmae, leader of the CDS party, a key ally of the president’s MNSD, is indicative of how divisive the issue has become for Niger’s political class.
Analysts have noted that the history of Niger, which saw several coups and the assassination of a president in the 1990s, points to the possibility of trouble.
At the weekend, the chief of staff Niger’s armed forces warned against any campaign of “misinformation” that might be launched to sap morale of the military.
Niger’s army is battling a two-year uprising led by Tuareg nomads in the north of the country, where the rebels want greater autonomy and a larger slice of revenues from resources.
Tandja’s government has begun talks with rebels it has long dismissed as bandits. This week, one of the rebel factions launched a scathing attack on the project for constitutional change.
More important, analysts say, is how many more of the president’s supporters jump ship and whether they, emboldened by support from regional bodies critical of the move, can bring pressure to bear on Tandja to abandon his plans.
West Africa’s regional body ECOWAS was the quickest and most direct critic of Tandja’s plan, threatening economic sanctions on Niger if it carried through with constitutional changes, which it said were banned.
After coups in Mauritania and Guinea, an assassination in Guinea Bissau, and flawed polls in Nigeria, the regional body will be keen to be seen to be taking strong steps to protect democracy, but it has often failed to follow up on its threats.
Regional rights body RADDHO has called the move a “constitutional coup” as well as “irrational and dangerous” for Niger and the entire region.
The U.S. government, which has in the past cooperated with Niger’s military on counter-terrorism exercises, expressed its concern over the weekend, saying any extension of Tandja’s rule would be “a setback for democracy”.
Most significant, however, will be how France, the former colonial power that is now a key investor in the uranium sector, will react. Earlier this year, President Nicolas Sarkozy visited Niger to give his support to French state-owned Areva’ s projects in Niger.
The row in Niger could provide a test for Sarkozy, who came to power vowing a new relationship between France and her former African colonies, where Paris has been accused of undermining democracy or protecting dictators in return for economic interests.
Some critics have linked Tandja’s bid to stay in power with rising interest investors have shown in Niger, not just in the mining sector, which has attracted uranium-hungry firms, but also a planned $5 billion Chinese oil project.
Investors this week warned that the instability will lead to hesitation or delays over some projects. The Tuareg rebellion has already been a cause for alarm so protracted political uncertainty is likely to spook them further.
Areva, however, seems undeterred.
Although it lost its decades-old monopoly on uranium in Niger, the firm has just began construction at its Imouraren mine, which is due to cost an initial 1.2 billion euros ($1.68 billion) and is set to be the second largest open-cast uranium mine in the world.
Once online, the mine’s output will reach 5,000 tonnes per year, doubling Niger’s production and making it the world’s No.2 producer. For a FACTBOX on uranium mining in Niger, click on [ID:nLQ297780].
Writing by David Lewis; Editing by Daniel Magnowski