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Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Clashes over Niger referendum

We told them this would be a fiasco and here is the confirmation

Clashes erupted as Niger voted on Tuesday in a constitutional referendum to extend President Mamadou Tandja’s long rule amid low turnout after an opposition boycott in the uranium-rich African nation.

  • Niger vote on term limits

  • Niger arrests opposition figure

  • Niger ‘institutional coup’ fears

    Police fired tear gas at protestors trying to block access to two polling stations in the small town of Illela, in the western Tahoua region, said a police officer who asked not to be named.

    "The police used tear gas to disperse demonstrators who were trying to prevent the polling," the police officer told AFP.

    An opposition politician, also speaking anonymously, reported similar clashes in two other localities around Tahoua, a stronghold of Mamadou Issoufou, who is an outspoken opponent of Tandja’s regime.

    Polling stations across the west African country closed at 7:00 pm (1800 GMT) amid reports of low turnout.

    "Ah really, is there a referendum?" said one youth sarcastically, loitering with his peers in a northern area of the capital, listening to music.

    "We told them this would be a fiasco and here is the confirmation," said Abdou Kadri, a youth opposed to the referendum project.

    Several opposition activists were arrested in the southwestern town of Dosso for staging protests, a member of the opposition Alliance for Democracy and Progress said.

    Interior Minister Albade Abouba confirmed the arrests on a local radio: "Those who were arrested know why... for violating the law."

    The unrest came as voters went to the polls in a referendum over whether Tandja, a former colonel who has been in power since 1999, could be allowed to rule indefinitely.

    The referendum has provoked fierce criticism both inside Niger and abroad, but Tandja has forged ahead, raising international concerns of instability in a country that borders on seven others, including Chad and Nigeria.

    Tandja, who defied parliament and the constitutional court to hold the vote, insisted earlier Tuesday that by holding the referendum he was responding to the will of the people.

    "I am fully satisfied that I have done my duty as president of the republic in the face of the demands of the people of Niger," the 71-year-old told reporters in Niamey as he cast his vote.

    "It’s a great day, our wish has been fulfilled," he added.

    Around six million of the country’s 15 million population were eligible to vote. The opposition had called for a boycott of the referendum.

    State radio called on people to "go out and vote massively," but turnout had appeared low, while Tandja hoped for a 75 percent participation.

    "We received the (voting) material on time and opened at 8:00 am, but it’s the voters who are not coming out," a returning officer at a polling station at Sahel school in the capital told AFP.

    "Yesterday the military were out in large numbers," he added.

    Soldiers and police voted in a specially arranged ballot for the security forces on Monday.

    The electoral commission said results from the country’s 19,000 polling stations should be available in five days.

    Under the current constitution, Tandja is due to step down at the end of his second five-year term on December 22, after a presidential poll.

    A majority "yes" vote will give Tandja a further three years in office, after which he can run for office indefinitely.

    In pushing his aim to cling to power, calling it the people’s will, Tandja dissolved both parliament and the constitutional court that opposed his referendum plan.

    He has assumed emergency powers, ruling by decree this vast country on the edge of the Sahara desert.

    The opposition has condemned Tandja’s action and likened it to a coup d’etat.

    Former colonial power France along with the African Union and the United Nations has urged Tandja to abandon the referendum and not trample on Niger’s constitution.

    The European Union has already frozen budgetary aid to the country, where 80 percent live on subsistence farming, continually threatened by drought and locusts.

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