[JURIST] Voters in Niger have voted overwhelmingly to approve a new constitution, according to results published Tuesday. Military leaders of the Supreme Council for the Restoration of Democracy (CSRD), who have held power after staging a coup [JURIST report] in February to oust then-president Mamadou Tandja [BBC profile], assert that the new constitution is pivotal in returning the country back to civilian rule. The CSRD suspended the previous constitution [JURIST reports], which allowed Tandja to remain in office for three more years and to run in any subsequent elections in fear that it expanded executive power beyond necessary limits. The new constitution will limit the power of the president to serve no more than two five-year terms and will also grant immunity to the military leaders who staged the coup. Opponents of the new constitution fear that less executive power will make it difficult to rule Niger in light of its grave poverty levels and chronic hunger crisis [BBC report]. However, supporters say the approval of the referendum helps to maintain Niger’s timeline for presidential and parliamentary elections to be held in January and a complete handover of power from the military junta to the president in April.
The constitution will be the seventh since Niger’s independence from France in 1960. In September 2009, members of Nigerien opposition parties said that police had detained 30 former opposition lawmakers allegedly at the behest of Tandja. The 30 former members of parliament were arrested on charges of embezzlement [JURIST report], but were likely being targeted for their dissidence, as they refused to recognize Tandja’s expansion of powers. Earlier this year, Nigerien rights group, the United Front for the Safeguard of Democratic Assets (Fusad), pushed for the prosecution [JURIST report] of Tandja on treason charges and corruption violating the constitution.