October 21, 2009 / 1:20 PM / 10 years ago

Defiant Niger toughs out sanctions by neighbours

* Niger sees no economic fall-out from sanctions

* Leverage seen diminished by Nigerien resource wealth

* Early poll results point to Tandja victory

By Abdoulaye Massalatchi

NIAMEY, Oct 21 (Reuters) - Niger on Wednesday shrugged off sanctions imposed by its West African neighbours over a disputed parliamentary election, saying they posed no threat to the uranium exporter’s economy.

The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) suspended Niger’s membership of the group after it went ahead with a poll on Tuesday boycotted by opposition leaders and seen helping President Mamadou Tandja tighten his grip on power.

The step came days after ECOWAS separately sanctioned Guinea, the world’s top exporter of the aluminium ore bauxite, for a lethal Sept. 28 crackdown on anti-government protesters.

But underlining the difficulty in dealing with resource-rich states, neither move has prompted policy changes by incumbents.

“ECOWAS has misunderstood the political situation in our country and we will continue the dialogue with the organisation so that it reconsiders its position,” Niger’s Foreign Minister Aichatou Mindaoudou told a news conference.

“This decision will not affect the economy or trade between our countries,” she said of ECOWAS measures that will exclude Nigerien officials from group decision-making and put on ice Niger’s involvement in any ECOWAS projects.

A spokeswoman at the ECOWAS grouping’s headquarters in the Nigerian city of Abuja confirmed that the consequences of the decision were more political than economic.

“We do not want to target the people of Niger. The aim is to put pressure on the government,” said ECOWAS’s Adrienne Diop.

Reacting to a U.S. White House statement on Tuesday urging ECOWAS to impose “full sanctions” on Niger, she added: “What is provided for by the (ECOWAS) treaty is already fully applied.”

LEVERAGE

Retired army colonel Tandja defied international and domestic criticism in August to hold a referendum allowing him to extend his mandate by three years, boost his own powers and remove existing presidential term limits.

Arguing he was needed to oversee infrastructure projects vital to the impoverished desert state, he dissolved parliament and Niger’s top court, which had ruled the referendum illegal.

Investors such as France’s state-owned energy firm Areva CEPFi.PA, which has been digging uranium in Niger for decades, have continued their activities, while street protests against Tandja’s power bid have been easily dealt with by authorities.

Full election results are expected within three to five days. Officials said on Wednesday results declared in the first three of the total 113 seats in the assembly all showed wins for members of Tandja’s ruling party.

Tandja’s rivals have said he is turning Niger — which is already bottom of the United Nations’ Human Development Index of living standards — into a pariah state.

The European Union has delayed vital aid payments, citing concerns over how Niamey would handle the assistance, and the case could now be raised within the continental African Union (AU) grouping and at the United Nations.

However analysts say the investment appeal of countries such as Niger, where China National Petroleum Corp last june signed a $5 billion deal to pump oil from its Agadem block, can foil attempts to apply political leverage on their leaders.

International efforts to persuade Guinea’s military junta to to ensure a civilian transition could face similar difficulties as Russia, China and others vie for access to its minerals.

While junta leader Captain Moussa Dadis Camara faced almost universal condemnation for a crackdown on protesters estimated to have left over 150 dead, Guinean media said Russian President Dmitry Medvedev sent Camara a note of congratulation on Guinea’s independence anniversary four days later.

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