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Violence Mars Niger Anti-Tax Protests

  • Joe Bavier

Demonstrations have turned violent in Niger, where young people again took to the streets Thursday to protest a new tax on essential goods. Protest organizers are calling for the the tax to be repealed, as well as the immediate release of five of the movement's jailed leaders.

Protesters clashed with government security forces in two of Niger's main cities Thursday.

In Tahoua, northeast of the capital, Niamey, supporters of the increasingly popular anti-tax movement, now called, the "Coalition for Quality and Fairness Against Costly Living," skirmished with security forces.

Young protesters in Maradi, an Islamic stronghold on the border with Nigeria, burned tires in the streets and threw stones at riot police.

Police made arrests in both cities, but it was not immediately clear how many.

A widely followed stay-at-home strike in Niamey shut down much of the capital. The three main public markets were empty. Shops and offices closed. And private radio stations were off the air for most of the morning in protest against what journalists are calling recent government intimidation.

A resident of Niamey, who stayed home from work Thursday, says he supports the strike 100 percent.

He says Niger is a poor country. With recent price increases, he asks the government how average Nigeriens are expected to get by.

A government spokesman, Ben Omar Mohammed, denies the strike has been successful in Niamey.

He says Niger is a country that respects its constitution, where the government cannot stop people from coming out and protesting. But, he says, demonstrators must adhere to the law.

The government banned public demonstrations in Niamey several weeks ago, after street protests ended in violence. Last week, leaders of the anti-tax campaign organized a similar, widely followed stay-at-home strike.

Thursday's strike, organizers say, is both a continuation of their efforts to repeal the new 19 percent value-added-tax and a new protest against the arrests last week of five of the movement's leaders on charges of undermining the authority of the state.

An activist with Niger's leading opposition party, Mahamadou Karidgo, says supporters of the movement will not be intimidated by the government.

"People are determined to go on struggling, up to the satisfaction of their desires. It's a reality," he said. "People are angry in Niger. The salaries are too low. And, of course, people would prefer to die struggling, than die without raising a finger."

The government says it will not back down on the new tax, which is being applied to essential goods like water, flour, and electricity. It says it needs the revenues created by the levy to fulfill the demands of the International Monetary Fund and regional banks.

It says, since Niger's economy depends almost entirely on external aid, it cannot ignore these demands.

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