The European Union announced it was freezing all development aid to Niger in protest at what it called a “grave violation” of democracy by its ex-army colonel President Mamadou Tandja.
Tandja defied international and domestic criticism to hold a referendum in August allowing him to retain power in the poor, uranium-producing West African nation for an extra three years, and to boost his presidential powers.
An EU letter to Niger obtained by Reuters in the capital Niamey gave authorities 30 days to send an envoy to Brussels to address the bloc’s concerns in consultations and urged “a return to constitutional order as soon as possible”.
“As we enter the period of consultations the current development aid funding for the period 2008-13 totalling approximately €458 million ($680 million) is on hold,” John Clancy, spokesperson for EU Aid Comissioner Karel De Gucht, said.
“Any humanitarian funding is unaffected during this period,” he said of the smaller sums which this year have helped Niger cope with the impact of a meningitis epidemic and mass flooding.
There was no immediate reaction in Niamey, where the government was holding a cabinet meeting.
Niger came bottom in the latest United Nations’ Human Development Index, a measure of life expectancy, literacy, education and standards of living worldwide.
The EU already froze some €180 million in budgetary aid earlier this year. The decision to put on hold the remainder follows Tandja’s move last month to stage a parliamentary poll which was boycotted by rivals and which his party won comfortably.
While Niger’s rich uranium reserves have attracted billions in foreign mining investment, it has become increasingly isolated from the international community.
The West African regional bloc ECOWAS suspended Niger’s membership over the legislative poll, and the United States has joined the chorus of criticism from abroad.
Analysts say the moves by Tandja, in power since he was elected to office in 1999, are a step backwards for democracy in Niger which could set a bad example for leaders in the rest of the West African region.
So far Tandja has seemed largely impervious to criticism, although authorities this week released 11 critics detained since a demonstration turned violent in June.
President Mamadou Tandja on Niger