Mamadou Tandja had his first taste of power after a 1974 coup
Niger's President Mamadou Tandja has divided the country with his attempt to stand for a third term in office. On the eve of a referendum on the issue, the BBC's Idy Baraou looks at the life and career of the controversial leader.
Under the existing law, Mamadou Tandja should step down in December when his second presidential mandate comes to an end.
But despite criticism from opposition parties, trade unions and human rights activists as well as the international community, President Tandja is adamant that the country should hold a referendum on scrapping such presidential term limits.
He says he needs more time to complete projects such as the country's first oil refinery, the construction of a dam on the River Niger and the mining of new uranium sites in the north of the country.
His supporters say these projects have already started to raise living standards in one of the world's poorest countries and would be jeopardised by any change of power.
President Tandja always says he will never let down his people, especially in hard moments when they need him.
And he tells foreign critics that he is "serving Niger and its people, not the international community".
But the opposition accuse him of trampling over Niger's new-found democracy.
They say his attempts to remain in power are little different from the military coups which people in Niger thought had been consigned to history.
Mr Tandja was born in 1938 in Maine Soroa, 1,400km (870 miles) east of the capital, Niamey.
He was raised in a family of shepherds. His father was of Arab descent, his mother was ethnically Kanuri.
He has a reputation as a pragmatist and his motto is: "To reconcile Niger's people with work."
He is known for his sense of justice and care towards the poor, needy and particularly rural people.
His ties with farmers and herdsmen have given him a reputation as a popular grassroots politician.
He has two wives and is the father of many children.
Niger has experienced long periods of military rule since independence from France in 1960.
A retired army colonel, Mr Tandja first came to power in December 1999 following what the international community called "a fair and transparent democratic electoral process" just eight months after the country's most recent military takeover.
He was re-elected in 2004 - a first in Niger.
At the time, observers called it proof of Niger's "democratic maturity".
But before this double victory, President Tandja had already a taste of power.
In 1974 he took part in Niger's first military coup, ousting President Hamani Diori.
He was named interior minister and also served as an ambassador for many years.
It was not until 2005 that President Tandja's government experienced its first serious social crisis. Locust attacks and poor rainfall led to large-scale protests organised by civil society groups and opposition parties.
Civil society groups denounced hikes in the prices of basic commodities like sugar, milk and wheat flower. Opposition parties accused his government of "unprecedented and rampant corruption".
The government was heavily criticised for doing too little, too late to prevent the failed harvests turning into acute food shortages, affecting some 3.5 million people.
The government had rejected calls for the free distribution of food and instead subsidised the cost of staple foods.
But the very poorest said they still could not afford to buy enough to stave off hunger.
Journalists who reported on the scale of the problems were harassed.
And the president launched a scathing attack on UN aid agencies, accusing them of exaggerating the scale of the problems in order to get donor funds.
He also accused opposition parties of trying to gain political mileage out of the problems.
Analysts in Niger say Mr Tandja's handling of the 2005 crisis owes much to his experiences in 1974, when the government's failure to deal with the severe food shortages led directly to a coup.
However, he is now facing another major political crisis following his decision in May to hold a referendum to change Niger's constitution.
If passed, the move would grant him not only three extra years in power but also remove the limit on presidential terms of office, so he could seek re-election as many times as he wanted.
Thursday, August 6, 2009
Niger:Mamadou Tandja a dictator in the making
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