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Niger Voting in Referendum on Presidential Term Limits


Voters in Niger are deciding whether they want to change the constitution to allow the president to run again. The president's political opponents say the government has restricted their campaign against the referendum.

President Mamadou Tandja's term expires in December, and Niger's constitution says he may not run again.

This referendum is meant to remove that restriction and allow the 71-year-old leader to have another three years in office and run again after that if he wants.

The Economic Community of West African States is threatening to sanction President Tandja if he changes the constitution. The European Union has suspended aid because it says the government is committing "grave violations" of the rule of law and democratic values.

The French Foreign Ministry says the referendum is "outside the constitutional framework" and threatens to weaken Niger's institutions in a "lasting fashion."

President Tandja says the referendum is a matter between himself and the people of Niger - a direct dialogue that does not include his political opponents.

President Tandja says he is talking only to the people of Niger because they are the ones who asked him to stay in power. Now, he says the international community wants him to go back. But Mr. Tandja says he never will because he serves the people of Niger, not the international community.

State radio is urging people to "vote massively," telling them that voting "yes" to remove term limits means improving their living conditions, while voting "no" means staying in poverty.

About six million of the country's 15 million people are registered to vote. Soldiers and police voted Monday in large numbers. But turn-out Tuesday in the capital was light.

Suleman Ibrahim heads Niamey's polling station number six. He says there have been no problems with the vote so far and no confrontation with those who oppose the referendum.

Niger's parliament and its constitutional court both told the president that removing term limits is illegal. President Tandja dissolved both bodies and now rules by decree.

Opposition leader Mohamadou Issoufou says the referendum is a coup d'etat.

Issoufou is calling on all "sincere democrats and patriots" in Niger to mobilize against what he calls this illegal referendum.

Issoufou says the government has blocked anti-referendum forces from organizing campaigns in many of the rural regions where he says activists were arrested for speaking out against the vote.

Trade unions have organized strikes to protest the president's move. A private radio station was closed for broadcasting an opposition statement about the referendum, and several local journalists have been arrested for writing that associates of the president, including his son, are corrupt.

Student Ibrahim Sania says he thinks the referendum is a good thing.

Sania says he wants President Tandja to continue in office because it is the best thing for the country and will help develop Niger.

Amadou Hama says he voted even though he says he does not know much about the controversy surrounding President Tandja's move to prolong his time in power.

Hama says his real problem is finding enough food for his family.

Niger is one of the world's poorest countries, where as many as 80 percent of the people live on subsistence farming at the edge of the Sahara.

President Tandja says one of the reasons the people of Niger want him to stay in power is to complete several large infrastructure projects including a Chinese-financed oil refinery, a hydroelectric dam, and a French uranium mine.

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