Niger on the brink

NAIROBI, Kenya — What's a president to do? He — it is almost always he — knows he is the
best and only man for the job but the world at large keeps insisting on irritations like constitutions, the rule of law and democracy.

For many African presidents who don't want to hand over the reins of power the holy grail is  known as the "third term." It is a constitutional amendment to allow a president to run for a third term of office. It removes presidential term limits allowing the president to become leader for life while maintaining the pretense of democracy.

The latest to submit his application for membership to the rogues gallery of recalcitrant leaders (see box below) is Niger’s Mamadou Tandja, the 71-year-old president of the vast, landlocked desert country in West Africa.

Tandja, a retired colonel who has served two five-year terms, was due to stand down in December, but he has changed his mind. It is hardly a surprise that he wants to do away with presidential term limits, after all he fits the usual criteria. Old, ex-military and authoritarian by nature, Tandja rules a country of 15 million of the world’s poorest people who scratch a living in the sand that lies above a wealth of natural resources, including huge reserves of uranium and oil.

His argument is twofold. Firstly, he needs more time to complete his program (including damming the Niger river, building a bridge and digging another uranium mine), and secondly he is really just responding to the desperate entreaties of his people who need and love him so. The scheme is marketed as "tazarche," meaning continuity in the local Hausa language.

Tandja's plan to amend the constitution to remove term limits and strengthen the office of the president by abolishing the post of prime minister is in response to popular demand, and therefore democratic, or so he says.

So popular has tazarche proved to be that Tandja now rules by decree and has dissolved both parliament and the constitutional court in order to get the referendum he is so sure of winning Tuesday.

Critical press has been muzzled lest the people be misled into thinking the president may have something other than their best interests at heart. Tens of thousands of Niger’s citizens have taken to the streets of the riverside capital, Niamey, to protest. When a hundred or so women did so recently Tandja’s loyal security forces showered them with tear gas.

Opposition leaders talk of Tandja’s stealthy “coup d’etat” and warn of “a slide into authoritarianism.” They are not alone. At a June meeting of the regional bloc ECOWAS, neighboring countries were quick to criticise Tandja’s moves as “non-democratic.”

After military coups in Mauritania last August and Guinea last December, the double assassination of military and political leaders in Guinea-Bissau in March and a woeful election in Nigeria in 2007, ECOWAS is keen to ensure the region’s beleaguered reputation is not further sullied.

Denunciations have flowed in from the European Union (“very concerned”), the African Union (“extremely concerned”) and the United Nations (“deeply concerned”). The U.S. said that Tandja’s “decisions undermine … good governance and the rule of law” and the EU has delayed aid payments worth about $14 million.

But Tandja can rely on the backing of both Libya and China. The latter has a $5 billion plan for an oil pipeline through the Sahara desert and is investing $700 million in uranium extraction. With these friends with deep pockets, Tandja is able to ignore other international condemnation. A trickier voice to ignore would be that of France, the former colonial power. France's state-owned nuclear firm, Areva, is constructing a $1.7-billion open-cast uranium mine deep in the desert.

The Imouraren mine will be Areva’s third in Niger and is expected to produce 5,000 tons of uranium a year from 2012 adding to Niger’s current output of 3,300 tons — or 7.5 percent of world production — and elevating it to the world’s second biggest producer. Current prices
value uranium at $55 a pound.

But since nuclear power provides three-quarters of France’s electricity needs and much of this is fueled by Niger's uranium, President Nicolas Sarkozy is unlikely to bring any real pressure to bear. In March he visited Niger to cement the Imouraren deal, by then it was already clear that Tandja was scheming for an infinite agenda.

Africa’s Third Term Winners and Losers

Algeria: Abdelaziz Bouteflika, 72. Elected president in 1999, removed term limits 2008, won his ‘third term’ in 2009.

Burkina Faso: Blaise Campaore, 58. Seized power in 1987, removed term limits 1997, won his ‘third term’ in 2005.

Cameroon: Paul Biya, 76. Became president in 1982, removed term limits 2008, due for ‘third term’ election in 2011.

Chad: Idriss Deby, 57. Seized power 1990, removed term limits 2005, won his ‘third term’ in 2006.

Uganda: Yoweri Museveni, 65. Seized power in 1986, removed term limits in 2005, won his ‘third term’ in 2006.

Malawi’s Bakili Muluzi, Nigeria’s Olusegun Obesanjo and Zambia’s Frederic Chiluba all tried and failed to remove term limits so were forced to stand down.


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