| NIAMEY, June 1
NIAMEY, June 1 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
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.
INSTABILITY AT HOME
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
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.
OPPOSITION FROM ABROAD
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
RICHES UNDER THE GROUND
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
(Writing by David Lewis; Editing by Daniel Magnowski)