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JOHANNESBURG - There is mounting concern over the situation in Niger, a resource-rich country in the Sahara where Canadian mining companies are key players.

It appears that Niger has now become the fifth African country to suffer a coup in the past year. It is a disturbing development, undermining the trend towards democracy in the continent as a whole, and it should be of particular concern to Canada, the second-biggest foreign investor in Niger.

Niger's president, Mamadou Tandja, has dissolved parliament and vowed to "guarantee stability" by holding a referendum to extend his grip on power. The constitution prohibits him from seeking a third term in office (since he has already served two terms as president) but he plans to rewrite the constitution to give him exactly what he wants: more years in power.

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Mr. Tandja is a former army colonel who was a key figure in the military junta that led a 1974 coup and ruled Niger until 1991.

He is ignoring the country's Constitutional Court, which ruled last week that he cannot use a referendum to change the constitution. And by dissolving parliament, he is making sure that the parliamentarians have no way to block his path.

African human rights activists are calling it "an institutional coup." The United States says it is a "setback for democracy." The regional grouping, the Economic Community of West African States, has warned of possible sanctions against Niger.

Canada's foreign affairs minister, Lawrence Cannon, has issued a statement to voice his concern over the situation. He has called on Mr. Tandja to "respect" the constitution.

Canadian gold and uranium mining companies - including Semafo Inc. of Montreal - are among the biggest investors in the Saharan country. And of course there's another Canadian connection: the kidnapping of Canadian diplomats Robert Fowler and Louis Guay in Niger last December.

In my visit to Niger in January to cover the kidnapping case, I could already see the signs of growing authoritarianism there. The government assigned a "minder" to watch my movements and to escort me wherever I went. I was able to dodge the requirement for a few days, but then the minder latched onto me, making it impossible to do interviews.

A human-rights campaigner warned me that I was in serious danger of arrest if I conducted interviews on any "sensitive subjects" - including the kidnapping of the Canadian diplomats; hunger and malnutrition in Niger; violations of the constitution; the continuing practice of slavery by some groups in Niger; and the rebel movement in northern Niger. All of these are banned subjects.

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After seeing these signs of intolerance and repression, I wasn't surprised when I saw Mr. Tandja's new attempt to keep his grip on power by any means possible.

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