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Niger Begins Campaign for Constitutional Referendum

A young Fulani woman with traditional facial tattoos is seen in Niamey, Niger. Voters in Niger go to the polls this month in a referendum on changing the constitution, (File).

Voters in Niger go to the polls this month in a referendum on changing the constitution, following February's military coup. Voters will decide whether to keep the constitution approved just last August, in a controversial referendum that increased the power of then-President Mamadou Tandja. When Niger's parliament and constitutional court said the vote was illegal, the president dissolved both bodies and ruled by decree.

Military leaders toppled him in February and named a consultative counsel to draft a new constitution.

Attorney Seini Yaye, vice president of the counsel's commission on political affairs, says the citizens of Niger believe it is normal to have a new constitution to bring about a modern state that respects the rule of law. He says there will not be this modern state without a new reliable constitution.

Niger is no stranger to changing its laws. But political science professor Mahaman Tidjani Alou says the breadth of civil society represented in this consultative counsel makes this proposed constitution more accountable to the people.

Alou says it is the first time in Niger that a constitutional project was discussed by all parts of social and professional society. He says that, usually, when you talk about constitutions, you talk about the type of government. Will it be presidential, semi-presidential, or parliamentary? Will this be a secular government or will it be Islamic?

The consultative counsel settled on what is known as a semi-presidential system that limits the powers of the chief executive.

The alliance of political parties that supported former President Tandja says that is a mistake because Niger needs a strong central authority to manage such a vast, under-developed country with huge population growth.

Because this referendum proposes a weaker presidency, former Prime Minister Seini Oumarou says Tandja supporters oppose it.

Oumarou says the 25 political parties that supported the previous government believe it is better for Niger to have a strong presidential government. He says the alliance will have one voice in this referendum.

Attorney Yaye says the consultative counsel is confident it is presenting the people of Niger with the best way to restore civilian rule.

Yaye says it is important that new laws are in place before elections. Yaye says, at the end of the month, Niger is going to have a new, normal constitution adopted by the people that will serve as the basis of a new normal constitutional life.

Professor Alou says this referendum is about more than the next president.

Alou says the people of Niger realize that the constitution is not only about the type of government, but it is about the choice of society and the principles that involve everyone.

If approved, this new constitution will set the stage for elections in January, delivering on the military's promise to return Niger to civilian rule within a year of their taking power.