Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Threat to Niger 's Democracy

A woman selling vegetables at a market in Niamey, the capital of Niger. The country ranks fifth from the bottom in the United Nations human development index.

Tens of thousands have taken to the streets to protest President Mamadou Tandja’s slow-moving coup d’état, as his critics call it: his plan to stay beyond the legal limit of two terms in his colonial-era palace, a gleaming oasis of whitewashed order amid dilapidated government buildings and mud-brick houses.

In his push for a new constitution that would abolish term limits and give him more power after 10 years as president, Mr. Tandja dissolved a high court that ruled against his bid to remain in office; dismissed a fractious Parliament; took steps to muzzle the press, including shutting down a radio and television station; and arrested opposition leaders.

Just as Chávez, Correa and Morales have done, as Zelaya want to do, In Latin America, one in power in Africa works to perpetuate his power.

Niger’s president, Mamadou Tandja, is seeking a new constitution that will allow him to stay in office past two terms and increase his power.

Democracy is new here in one of the world’s poorest countries, barely a decade old in this vast land of about 14 million people, most of it desert, bigger in area than France, Spain and Portugal together. Uranium deposits, among the world’s largest, provide the government with revenue, but the citizens here do not have much.

Yellow cake, W. Bush announced, Iraq sought to get, and he and Blair used that line to help justify their decision to make war.

Most of Niger’s citizens live on less than a dollar a day.

Most live on less than a dollar a day, and mortality rates for mothers and children are well above the African average — double in the case of women giving birth. The country ranks fifth from the bottom in the United Nations human development index, and persistent malnutrition stalks rural areas, aid workers say. In the capital, the hugely swollen limbs of insistent beggars testify to the effects of unchecked disease.

One thing the people have dearly acquired, though, after decades of coups, military strongmen and weak governments, is a political order that has resembled democracy, albeit with lapses: two successful presidential elections, defeated candidates who go home without causing turmoil, an outspoken opposition and an alert if beleaguered press. The citizens are manifestly unwilling to give up their shaky gains.

In the presidential palace, an airy Moorish-style edifice built for the French governors and well hidden from the road, Mr. Tandja beamed and said he wanted to stay on only because the people were begging him to do so. “The people demand it,” Mr. Tandja said. “My obligation is to never betray the aspirations of the people. It’s the people who asked.”

What people, one wonders.

Although the United States and the European Union have condemned Mr. Tandja’s moves, analysts say that because of an oil deal with the Chinese and support from the Libyan leader Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi, he may be relatively invulnerable to Western pressure, despite the considerable presence of outside aid in Niger’s budget.

Mr. Tandja insisted that he had not “violated any act of the Constitution.”

A union leader here who also heads the protests angrily disagreed.

“Unfortunately, he’s made us miss our entrance into the great court of democratic nations, like Ghana and Mali,” said Issoufou Sidibé, secretary general of the Democratic Confederation of Workers in Niger. “He’s made us totally miss what would have been our triumphant entry. It’s made every Nigerien who is proud of his country very angry.”

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