NIAMEY (Reuters) - Niger’s President Mamadou Tandja will hold a referendum to allow him to seek a third term in power, the government said on Friday.
Tandja came to power in 1999 elections and won a second term with 66 percent of the vote five years later.
He is trying to quell a two-year rebellion by nomadic Tuaregs in the uranium-mining north of the country which has destabilised swathes of the Sahara where al Qaeda cells also operate.
Last month, his government and the main Tuareg dissident groups agreed at Libyan-backed talks to make peace, a breakthrough after the governmemnt had until then dismissed the rebels as criminals.
Niger’s main opposition party, the Niger Social Democratic Party, has accused Tandja of trying to suspend the constitution and said it would organise a rally on Saturday to protest against Friday’s move.
Under Niger’s constitution Tandja is due to step down when his second elected term expires in December this year.
“If the people vote ‘yes’ for the presidential regime, nothing will prevent President Tandja canvassing for a third mandate,” Communications Minister Mohamed Ben Omar said on national radio.
“President Tandja will hold a referendum to change the constitution, he will put before the people a new text...so he will not violate the constitution adopted in 1999,” Ben Omar said, without giving a date for any plebiscite.
Among others, French nuclear energy group Areva is investing heavily in Niger, one of the world’s poorest countries.
Its Imouaren project, which it expects to become the largest uranium mine in Africa, will cost an initial 1.2 billion euros and is scheduled to start production in 2012.
Tandja would not be the first African leader to change the law in order to extend his tenure.
Last year, Cameroon’s President Paul Biya signed a constitutional amendment removing a two-term limit, and allowing him to extend his 26-year rule.
The amendment was a major cause of riots last February in which dozens of people were killed, and was strongly critcised as a setback for democracy by opposition leaders.
“President Tandja is not insensitive to the appeals of the population who demand he stays in power,” Ben Omar said.
“He will take the advice of Parliament and the president of the constitutional court, but he is not bound by their responses,” he said.