Niger has issued an international arrest warrant for Mahamadou Issoufou, the main opposition figure leading the challenge against the West African nation’s president, a legal source said.
Issoufou, who heads the Nigerien Party for Democracy and Socialism (PNDS), is one of dozens of former parliamentarians caught up in an investigation that critics say is an attempt to muzzle opponents of President Mamadou Tandja’s moves to extend his powers.
Investigations have found “numerous transactions” of large amounts of money “from dubious origins” through Issoufou’s accounts, leading to the charges of money laundering, the senior legal source told Reuters, asking not to be named.
Neither Niger’s judiciary nor the government have made a statement on the arrest warrant.
Authorities in the uranium exporting nation say the investigation is aimed at rooting out graft.
Issoufou is currently in Abuja, Nigeria, for talks hosted by regional body ECOWAS, which is seeking to resolve a political crisis sparked by Tandja’s successful bid this year extend his time as president, increase his powers and remove term limits.
“You know, dictatorial regimes don’t like the idea of an opposition existing. They don’t like the idea of them so they criminalise them and accuse them of terrible things like money laundering,” said PNDS vice president Bazoum Mohamed.
“Issoufou would never take part in shameful practice Issoufou will return to Niger so the trial can take place.”
The PNDS and the CDS party, both previously Tandja allies, earlier this month boycotted an election to replace parliament after Tandja dissolved it in the run-up to an August referendum boosting his powers.
ECOWAS subsequently suspended Niger’s membership from the West African bloc and the country is also facing a possible freeze in European Union development aid.
Analysts have questioned the impact of sanctions when the government has already proved it can lure billions of dollars of foreign investment into its uranium mining and oil sectors.
The government in Niamey has shrugged off criticism that it is undermining democracy and Tandja says he needs broad powers to oversee multi-billion-dollar mining and other contracts in the poverty-stricken desert state.
These include the completion of a €1.2 billion uranium mine with French mining giant Areva and a $5 billion Chinese oil project.
Pic: President Mamadou Tandja on Niger