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Profile: Mamadou Tandja

18 February 10 17:20 GMT

In a country plagued by coups and and chronic poverty, Niger President Mamadou Tandja built his reputation on providing political and economic stability.

But with reports of a coup in the capital, Niamey, it seems Mr Tandja may be swept away in much the same fashion as many of his predecessors before the introduction of multi-party elections in 1999.

Mr Tandja won two elections - in 1999 and 2004 - and was due to step down last December after 10 years in power.

But despite widespread criticism, Mr Tandja pushed through a constitutional amendment scrapping such presidential term limits.

Critics said this was aimed at allowing him to stay in power indefinitely.

But he said he just needed more time to complete projects such as the country's first oil refinery, the construction of a dam on the River Niger and the mining of new uranium sites in the north of the country.

His supporters said these projects had already started to raise living standards in one of the world's poorest countries and would be jeopardised by any change of power.

The BBC's Idy Baraou in Niamey says Mr Tandja has always insisted he would never let down his people, especially in hard moments when they need him.

And he has often told foreign critics that he was "serving Niger and its people, not the international community".

But the opposition have accused him of trampling over Niger's new-found democracy.

They said his attempts to remain in power were little different from the military coups which people in Niger thought had been consigned to history.

'Grassroots man'

Mr Tandja was born in 1938 in Maine Soroa, 1,400km (870 miles) east of Niamey.

He was raised in a family of shepherds. His father was of Arab descent, his mother was ethnically Kanuri.

He has a reputation as a pragmatist and his motto is: "To reconcile Niger's people with work."

He is known for his sense of justice and care towards the poor, needy and particularly rural people.

His ties with farmers and herdsmen have given him a reputation as a popular grassroots politician.

He has two wives and is the father of many children.

A retired army colonel, Mr Tandja first came to power in December 1999 following what the international community called "a fair and transparent democratic electoral process".

That election came just eight months after a military takeover.

His 2004 re-election was the first time a president had been voted in for a second term.

At the time, observers called it proof of Niger's "democratic maturity".

Before this double victory, Mr Tandja had already had a taste of power.

In 1974 he took part in Niger's first military coup, ousting President Hamani Diori.

He was named interior minister by Mr Diori and also served as an ambassador for many years.

'Democratic maturity'

It was not until 2005 that President Tandja's government experienced its first serious social crisis. Locust attacks and poor rainfall led to large-scale protests organised by civil society groups and opposition parties.

Civil society groups denounced hikes in the prices of basic commodities like sugar, milk and wheat flower. Opposition parties accused his government of "unprecedented and rampant corruption".

The government was heavily criticised for doing too little, too late to prevent the failed harvests turning into acute food shortages, affecting some 3.5 million people.

The government had rejected calls for the free distribution of food and instead subsidised the cost of staple foods.

But the very poorest said they still could not afford to buy enough to stave off hunger.

Journalists who reported on the scale of the problems were harassed.

And the president launched a scathing attack on UN aid agencies, accusing them of exaggerating the scale of the problems in order to get donor funds.

He also accused opposition parties of trying to gain political mileage out of the problems.

Analysts in Niger say Mr Tandja's handling of the 2005 crisis owes much to his experiences in 1974, when the government's failure to deal with the severe food shortages led directly to a coup.

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