Niger’s new ruling junta lifted a curfew and reopened the borders a day after consolidating control in a Feb. 18 coup d’etat that toppled President Mamadou Tandja. The army stormed the palace during a cabinet meeting and seized Tandja and detained his ministers before announcing it was suspending a constitution that the 71-year-old leader had pushed through with a contested referendum last year. “The situation is under control,” assured junta spokesman Col. Goukoye Abdoulkarim. “There is no single voice of dissension in either Niamey or in other parts of the country.”
At least three people were reported to have been killed in the four-hour palace gun battle. Calling itself the Supreme Council for the Restoration of Democracy (CSRD), the junta has issued a call for support from the 15 million population, promising to make the troubled country a beacon of “good democracy and governance.” The US, EU, AU and Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) haver all condemned the coup. (AFP, AlJazeera, Feb. 19)
The increasingly autocratic style of the deposed Tandja was widely resented. The referendum last August, which abolished presidential term limits, was challenged as illegitimate, with opponents claiming the true turnout may have been as low as 5%. The vote came after both the parliament and supreme court had ruled the referendum illegal; Tandja shut them down and organized the election in May of a more compliant national assembly in questionable polls that were not recognized by ECOWAS.
The political turmoil comes amid a race by French and Chinese uranium interests for contracts in Niger. Currently the world’s third largest uranium supplier, Niger recently announced plans to double its production by 2012. The French state nuclear energy company Areva signed a contract with the government in 2009 for mining in the Imouraren region, in the country’s north. But China’s National Uranium Corporation has been exploring in northern Azelik region since 2007.
Despite its riches, Niger is one of the world’s least developed countries, with 60% of the population living below the poverty line. Tandja’s increasingly undemocratic rule put support from the EU and other Western donors at risk. This may explain his seeking closer relations with Libya and Venezuela, both of which he had visited in recent months. He was also rumored to be broaching a uranium contract with Iran. States BBC: “Some sources have suggested that talk of a deal with the Chinese whetted the appetite of some in the military for a share of the material rewards, intensifying tensions within the military over Mr Tandja’s monopolisation of power.” (BBC News, Press TV, Feb. 19)