Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Niger Expelled From ECOWAS

Niger expelled from African grouping

Wednesday, October 21

NIAMEY (AFP) - – A west African regional grouping kicked Niger out from its ranks Tuesday to express its disapproval after President Mamadou Tandja defied its call to delay elections seen to tighten his grip on power.

Despite an opposition boycott, international calls and an 11th hour regional appeal for the national legislative vote to be postponed, Niger's government forged ahead and called voters to the ballots.

Leaders of the Economic Community of West African States had told Tandja at the weekend to defer the vote and open dialogue with political foes or risk imposition of "full and automatic sanctions".

"The resolution of the summit was clear and precise," ECOWAS commission head Mohamed Ibn Chambas told AFP.

Failure by Tandja to comply with its decision "would lead to the automatic and immediate imposition of full sanctions," leaders from the 15-country bloc decided at the weekend.

The African Union, ECOWAS and the European Union, a major donor, all urged a delay in order to revive political dialogue between Tandja and the opposition, but Interior Minister Albade Abouba said the call to postpone the election is "inappropriate".

Niger's opposition boycotted Tuesday's polls in protest at Tandja's move to extend his tenure, which would have run out in December, through an earlier referendum that it condemned as a "coup d'etat."

"The threats of sanctions are unfounded," Abouba told reporters earlier Tuesday.

In a last-ditch attempt to convince Tandja to delay the vote, ECOWAS on Sunday sent to Niamey a delegation led by Liberia's President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, but he refused.

The polls, to fill 113 parliamentary seats, come after Tandja dissolved parliament in June, two months before he held the referendum to prolong his mandate. Around six million people are eligible to vote.

But turnout was generally low according to independent media, observers and judging from around 50 polling stations visited by an AFP reporter in the capital.

At a polling station in Gamkale district on the outskirts of Niamey, the ballot-paper pad remained virtually intact some two hours after the polls opened. Only two ballot papers were seen in a transparent ballot box at the polling station where some 500 people are eligible to vote.

"People are coming in dribs and drabs," said a policeman posted at the entrance.

State-run Radio Niger was calling on the electorate to go out to exercise their rights.

The 71-year-old Tandja, a former army colonel, cast his vote early Tuesday at Niamey city hall flanked by heavy security and saying he hoped for a "fair and transparent" vote.

"I wish that this day will be good for Niger, that the voting will pass off smoothly and that the elected deputies will be true patriots," he said.

In power for 10 years, Tandja defied international and domestic opposition to hold a referendum to change the constitution to extend his stay in office beyond the two stipulated terms, winning approval for his moves in a much-criticised poll in August.

Communications Minister Kassoum Moctar claimed that "nobody is going to punish us".

"The march towards building a dignified Niger is irreversable," he said on private radio Dounia.

Tandja has argued that he needs more time to complete work undertaken during his two five-year terms in office, where he has sought peace with Tuareg rebels in the desert north of the country and has signed agreements, mainly with France, for the further exploitation of Niger's only resource, uranium.

Niger, one of the world's poorest nations, derives the bulk of its foreign trade income from uranium.

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