Niger votes Sunday on a new and progressive constitution _ but critics question the vote's significance in a country under the rule of a squabbling military council that took power by force earlier this year.
The West African nation was rocked in February by a military coup that deposed President Mamadou Tandja after he stayed in office months past his legal mandate. The uniformed men stormed the presidential palace with a hail of gunfire in broad daylight and kidnapped Tandja. They later said they took control of the nation of 15 million in order to restore democratic rule.
In the months since, the junta has followed a familiar pattern set by previous juntas of infighting and coup allegations. Earlier this month, the ruling council removed and arrested four top leaders and charged them with plotting a coup.
Junta chief Gen. Djibou Salou had promised to hold elections before the end of the year, but the date of the proposed vote has since been pushed back several times.
For some in the desert nation, the new constitution, which aims to reduce presidential power and increase transparency, represents a new contract between the people and their government. But others see it as part of a cycle of coups, countercoups and political maneuvering.
The 187-article document also includes what could be seen as direct swipes at Tandja, who remains under house arrest in Niamey. The original draft of the new constitution required presidential candidates to be between the ages of 35 and 70 and limited candidates to two presidential terms of five years. Tandja, 72, pushed through a constitution last year that removed term limits. The proposed constitution was recently amended to remove the age ceiling.
"The referendum speaks of a new accord between the government and the governed," said Souley Adji, a political professor at the University of Niamey. "It's a new era of democracy. The people must know that there is a change and that this change comes from the people themselves."
Moussa Tchangari, head of a civil association in Niger, called the new constitution a positive step. But he said he's not convinced it will end Niger's political instability.
"This is not the last coup d'etat," Tchangari said. "That's for sure. There are other military men who are hungry for power. When they have the opportunity to take power, they'll grab it."
William Miles, a professor of political science at Northeastern University who has lived in Niger and written extensively on the region, also noted that with so many regimes moving through office _ each passing its own constitution _ the new document is not as hallowed as its name suggests.
"We Americans, we see the Constitution with a capital C," he said. "We revere it. In a population where most people are illiterate _ or can't read juridical French, which the Niger constitution is written in _ it can't be taken as seriously."
Furthermore, Miles said, the capital and its political maneuverings are far removed from most people in the country.
"This is $2-a-day land," he said. "Niger is a dirt-poor, landlocked nation which is agriculturally based in an era when climate change seems to be adversely affecting the Sahel. People are living from rainy season to rainy season, and the rainy seasons are getting shorter and less predictable. It's a struggle for survival. For most people, politics is a luxury."
The United Nations Human Development index, a global ranking of countries based on critical aspects of human development like education, poverty, and security, ranked Niger in last place three out of the last four years.
The country has few resources, with the exception of uranium. In Niger, as in much of West Africa, the surest way to wealth is through political power. Niger has struggled with democracy, with a long tradition of strongmen seizing power by force _ and leaving the same way.
Even officials who worked on the constitution say they worry it will not be a victory for democracy.
In order for Niger's referendum to mark a victory for participative democracy, high voter turnout is required, said Marou Amadou, president of the national advisory council that drafted the proposed constitution. He said he fears low voter turnout may bring more instability, and he blames the political parties for not mobilizing voters.
"While we applaud the media campaign that has taken place, we regret that there was not a stronger mobilization effort in the villages and countryside," Amadou said. "There still are no advertising banners, no hats and T-shirts to promote the referendum."
Amadou said he hoped the referendum would mark a return to normal constitutional order for Niger.
"It should celebrate democracy," he said. "If this constitution draws only 15 percent, I can assure you that it's not good for the legitimacy of the institutions that will be elected next January and February."
Associated Press Writer Dalatou Mamane in Niamey, Niger contributed to this report.