NIAMEY, May 31, 2009 (AFP) - The Niger president's dismissal of parliament and plans for a referendum to allow him a third term have sparked deep concern, with the opposition calling it a coup bid in the uranium-producing nation.
Mamadou Tandja, a former colonel elected president in 1999 following a military coup, on Friday announced he would go ahead with plans for a referendum on a new constitution.
If approved, it would allow him to stay in power after his second five-year term expires on December 22.
His announcement came after the Constitutional Court, the nation's highest, said Monday it was opposed to the holding of the referendum.
On Tuesday, Tandja dissolved parliament, which was reportedly on the verge of objecting to his plans, before it could make its position known. Tandja, 71, did not give a date for the referendum.
The moves caused alarm at both home and abroad.
Niger's main opposition group said it sees Tanjda's determination to push ahead with the referendum despite the refusal of the nation's highest court and the reluctance of parliament as being tantamount to a coup.
"Right from the minute Tandja says he was calling a referendum, he ... loses his legitimacy as he'll have proclaimed a coup. We will treat him as a mere putschist," Hassoumi Massaoudou of the Niger Party for Democracy and Socialism (PNDS) said.
Tandja took part in the 1974 coup that toppled the country's first civilian president, Diori Hamani, and was a pillar of the military regime that governed Niger until the advent of multi-party politics in 1991.
Both the United States and Canada expressed concern about the developments in the country, which despite being a major uranium producer has also been one of the world's poorest nations.
"We believe this risks undercutting Niger's hard won social, political, and economic gains of the past decade, and would be a set-back for democracy, based on the regular, peaceful transition of political power and faithful adherence to constitutional due-process," said US State Department spokesman Ian Kelly. Canadian Foreign Minister Lawrence Cannon said in a statement that his country was following the events "with concern" and "considers that respect for the integrity of democratic institutions and mechanisms is paramount to a firm commitment to democracy."
One analyst said the president's actions were a reminder of past turmoil.
"The history of Niger has shown that once there is political impasse ... the military tends to intervene," Abubakar Sadiq, a political science professor at Ahmadu Bello University in Zaria in neighbouring Nigeria, told AFP.
"This is why what Tandja is doing is very, very dangerous.
"Tandja of course belongs to the military class, being a former colonel ... but that is not a guarantee the military will not strike."
Parliamentarians from French-speaking countries, meeting in Dakar earlier this week, also called for the "strict respect" of Niger's constitution.
The regional grouping the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) warned that Niger could face sanctions if it forged ahead with the referendum.
But Libyan leader and current African Union head Moamer Khadafi, himself in power for the past four decades, was more understanding of Tandja's position.
"If the people decide the president deserves to be re-elected, they can choose him once, three times or even 10 times," he said at a regional summit Friday.
Sadiq said "the world should not keep quiet and allow the rape of democracy again in Niger."
"The situation in Niger Republic is symptomatic of a trend in Africa where democracy is not well entrenched. Virtually all African leaders don't respect democratic institutions, they only want to remain in power until they die," he said.
"Pressure has to be brought to bear on Tandja by the whole Nigerian nation, the African Union and the international community to respect the constitution of Niger Republic."