August 18, 2009 / 9:13 PM / 10 years ago

UPDATE 1-Niger government steps down for cabinet reshuffle

* Prime Minister announces government steps down

* Tandja expected to name new team in coming days

* Analysts say investments safe

(Adds details throughout)

By Abdoulaye Massalatchi

NIAMEY, Aug 18 (Reuters) - Niger’s government stepped down on Tuesday to allow President Mamadou Tandja to pick a new team, his first act under a constitutional change broadening his powers and extending his rule of the uranium-rich nation.

The move was unlikely to impact the billions of dollars in mining and energy investment in the Saharan country, analysts said, but reflects a deepening political crisis that could provoke instability in a nation that is the scene of al Qaeda activity and a Tuareg insurgency.

“The growing sense that Tandja is quietly building up an authoritarian regime will put new pressure on France and the United States to ‘wake up and smell the stench’ of an African democracy being dismembered,” said Sebastian Spio-Garbrah, analyst at Eurasia Group in New York.

Prime Minister Seine Oumarou confirmed on Tuesday that the government had stepped down to allow for the reshuffle, widely expected after Niger passed the constitutional reform with 90 percent of the vote earlier this month in a referendum dismissed by opposition as fraudulent.

“We are proud to have served the Republic at your side,” he said in a national radio address. “But just as the Republic has its duties, notably in respect to the new configuration of the constitution, duty requires me to present the dissolution of the government.”

Prior to the change in Niger’s constitution, Tandja’s mandate had been set to end on the completion of his second term in December.

The United Nations, African Union, European Union, the United States and former colonial power France have all criticised Tandja’s plan to retain his grip on the presidency, which Niger’s constitutional court said was unlawful.

Tandja, who is expected to name his new government in the coming days, has argued the people of Niger want him to stay to oversee multibillion-dollar oil, mining and infrastructure deals which could transform the impoverished country’s economy.

French state-owned energy firm Areva CEPFi.PA is building a 1.2 billion euro ($1.72 billion) uranium mine in the north of the country, while China National Petroleum Corp last year signed a $5 billion oil deal with Niger.

Niger’s controversial referendum was one of a string of questionable votes in West Africa this year that analysts said may incite further power grabs on an unstable continent. [ID:nLB693654]

For a factbox on Mamadou Tandja, click on [ID:nL7257250], for a factbox on African leaders extending their terms in power click on [ID:nL7120283] and for a factbox on foreign investment in Niger, click on [ID:nLU727836]. (Writing by Richard Valdmanis; Editing by Jon Hemming)

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