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Niger votes on new constitution after coup

world Updated: Oct 31, 2010 15:22 IST

Voters in Niger were being asked on Sunday to back a new constitution that would impose presidential term limits, though critics say it is unlikely to increase political stability in the desperately poor country long plagued by coups.

President Mamadou Tandja was deposed last February in a military coup after he stayed in office months beyond his legal mandate. Uniformed men stormed the presidential palace and kidnapped Tandja, who still remains under house arrest months later. While the coup leaders said they had taken control in order to restore democratic rule in the desert West African country, they have followed a familiar pattern of infighting. Earlier this month, the ruling council removed and arrested four top leaders and charged them with plotting a coup.

Junta chief Gen. Djibou Salou had promised to hold elections before the end of the year, but the date of the proposed vote has since been pushed back several times.

Moussa Tchangari, head of a civil association in Niger, called the new constitution a positive step but he said he's not convinced it will end Niger's political turmoil.

"This is not the last coup d'etat," Tchangari said. "That's for sure. There are other military men who are hungry for power. When they have the opportunity to take power, they'll grab it." Niger has struggled with democracy since independence from France a half century ago, with a long tradition of strongmen seizing power by force _ and leaving the same way.

Others like Souley Adji, a political professor at the University of Niamey, say the constitution would be a new accord between the government and the governed.

"It's a new era of democracy," Adji said. "The people must know that there is a change and that this change comes from the people themselves."

The 187-article document includes what could be seen as direct swipes at Tandja, the deposed president. The original draft of the new constitution required presidential candidates to be between the ages of 35 and 70 and limited candidates to two presidential terms of five years.

Tandja, 72, pushed through a constitution last year that removed term limits. The proposed constitution was recently amended to remove the age ceiling.

The United Nations Human Development index, a global ranking of countries based on education, poverty, and security, ranked Niger in last place three out of the last four years. The country has few resources, except for uranium.

In August, aid officials said Niger was facing the worst hunger crisis in its history, with almost half the country's population in desperate need of food and up to one in six children suffering from acute malnutrition.

"It's a struggle for survival. For most people, politics is a luxury," said William Miles, a professor of political science at Northeastern University who has lived in Niger and written extensively on the region.