Civil society and opposition leaders in Niger have joined together to condemn the recent arrest of the leaders of a popular anti-tax movement. Opposition parties are calling for more nationwide strikes and protests against the arrests.
The five leaders of Niger's Coalition Against Costly Living, which organized a series of protests and strikes against a new tax on essential goods, are charged with plotting against the authority of the state, forming an unauthorized association, and inciting the gathering of armed groups.
The men each face up to 20 years in prison if convicted.
A government spokesman, Ben Omar Mohamed, says if the five men had kept their movement as a social protest only, and not political there would have been no problems. But, he says, the authorities could not tolerate what "were calls for the overthrow of a democratically-elected government."
The men were arrested last week following a radio address in which some of them called upon Christian and Muslim communities to pray for an end to what they called Niger's misery.
A spokeswoman for a grouping of civil society organizations that support the five men, Fourera Ibbo, says groups opposed to the new 19 percent tax on essential goods like water, bread, and electricity, would not be intimidated. She says she considers the five jailed leaders as government hostages.
Representatives from civil society groups and Niger's main opposition party called upon all Nigeriens to observe a nationwide stay at home strike Thursday.
A similar strike last week brought the capital Niamey to a standstill and was widely followed in several of Niger's largest cities. The government has banned public demonstrations in Niamey after earlier street protests ended in violence.
Opposition activist Mohamed Bazoum is critical of the government's decision to arrest the leaders of the anti-tax movement. He says if strike calls receive popular support, the government will have to back down.
"It is a fascist practice,” he said. “It is a practice of antidemocratic systems. If tomorrow the mobilization is as good as what we have seen, it means that the power failed."
Critics of the new tax say that, in a country where 85 percent of the population lives on less than two dollar a day, a 19 percent increase in prices puts many necessities out of the reach of ordinary people.
Niger's government says it is simply complying with the demands of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and regional banks in an effort to boost aid and investment.