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Niger on the brink

Country votes on whether president can extend his authoritarian rule.

Niger's President Mamadou Tandja, left, and Niger's Government members welcome France's President Nicolas Sarkozy at Diori Hamari airport in Niamey on March 27, 2009. France, Niger's former colonial power, is unlikely to try to block Tandja's bid to be re-elected to a third term as president. (Francois Mori/Reuters)

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.