Niger’s destitute population senses a threat to its scrap of democracy

┬áNIAMEY, Niger — Stubbornness crops up in harsh environments like that of this desert’s-edge capital, in the stoicism of grilled meat vendors in 43-degree heat or the patience of camels bearing heavy reed mats through the dusty streets.

So, too, in the refusal, for more than two months now, of the impoverished citizens to part with a commodity as seemingly fragile as the tenuous greenery here: democracy.

Tens of thousands have taken to the streets to protest President Mamadou Tandja’s slow-moving coup d’etat, 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, 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.

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.

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. The street protests have given way to strikes and daily banner headlines in the nongovernment press. The privately owned press began a week-long strike on July 20 against a presidential decree that allows sanctions against the media without warning.

In the teeming central market, the mood turns somber and the vendors shout angrily at the mention of Tandja’s project, known as Tazarche, a Hausa word meaning “continuity.” Unions and opposition parties have engineered a unified front against it, and are calling for more demonstrations and a boycott of Tandja’s August 4 referendum on his new constitution for Niger.

The country’s constitutional court ruled that he could not hold the referendum; Tandja’s solution was to dissolve the court and replace its members.

“In every other country where democracy is well-anchored, what is happening here would be unimaginable,” said Moussa Coulibaly, a lawyer who leads the bar association here, citing the president’s recent seizure of emergency powers for himself. “It’s all the more serious in that 10 years of gains are now threatened.”

During a 2005 visit to the White House by Tandja, President George W. Bush praised his adherence to democratic values. (Shortly afterward, Tandja went on to deny the existence of a well-documented famine in his country.)

Now, Tandja, a 71-year-old former military man, has engineered “a coup d’etat in its first phase,” said the leader of the opposition, Mohamadou Issoufou, a veteran politician here, who was recently arrested in the night and interrogated at police headquarters in Niamey, but later released.

Issoufou warned that the standoff could lead to a “test of strengths.”

“I’m extremely worried about the stability of the country,” he said.

If it is a coup, it has been concealed in a cloak of legalism, with Tandja insisting that he has the right to dissolve first one institution, then another, making the protest movement that has engulfed the dun-colored city from top to bottom all the more notable.

The citizens are paying close attention. “This isn’t good at all for democracy,” said Adama Abdou, a vendor in the market, as others crowded around and nodded assent. “We don’t want a president for life here. Yes, democracy is in serious, serious trouble.”

Another vendor, Hamani Issaka, said, “We don’t want him anymore; he’s got to step down.”

Yet another, Abdoulaye Hama, said: “Tazarche is no good. The country doesn’t agree with it. There’s nothing to eat, and there are loads of problems.”

In the presidential palace, an airy Moorish-style edifice built for the French governors and well hidden from the road, Tandja beamed and said he wanted to stay on only because the people were begging him to do so.

“The people demand it,” Tandja said. “My obligation is to never betray the aspirations of the people. It’s the people who asked.”

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

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 Sidibe, 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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