Africa, Headlines

POLITICS-TOGO: Tensions Rise Over the "Unconstitutional Charade"

Ali Idrissou-Toure

COTONOU, Feb 11 2005 (IPS) - Reports from the Togolese capital, Lome, say police on Friday used teargas to halt a protest against the recent appointment of Faure Eyadema as the country’s new head of state.

Eyadema’s nomination, by the Togolese army, came shortly after the Feb. 5 death of his father, Gnassingbe – and has been described by various observers as a military coup.

In terms of Togo’s constitution, the speaker of the national assembly – Fambare Natchaba – should have become head of state on Saturday, to govern the country for two months while a presidential election was organised.

However, legislators altered the constitution after Faure Eyadema’s appointment to legitimise it. He had previously served as a minister in his father’s government.

A further change to the constitution allows the younger Eyadema to govern Togo until 2008, when his father’s term in office would have ended – rather than for an interim period of two months. Gnassingbe Eyadema was re-elected for five years in a controversial 2003 poll, this after he himself altered the constitution to allow for a three-term presidency.

Natchaba, who was in Paris at the time of Eyadema’s death, immediately boarded a flight back to Togo – but was refused entry to the country. All borders were closed by authorities as soon as news of the president’s death became public.

As a result, the speaker’s plane was diverted to Benin, where he is currently exiled.

The clashes in Lome come after another plane – this one carrying a delegation of Nigerian officials – was prevented from landing in Togo, Thursday. The mission was to have prepared for regional talks on resolving the political crisis in the country.

Five West African leaders, including those from Benin, Ghana, Mali and Niger, had planned to follow the Nigerian team to Togo under the auspices of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo was also scheduled to participate in talks with Togo, but has now said he will not be traveling to the country.

According to reports, Togo blamed its refusal to allow the plane to land on a misunderstanding sparked by the decision to move talks from Lome to Kara, a city in the north.

ECOWAS has threatened to suspend Togo from all of its structures unless the country restores “normal constitutional order”.

“I asked them (Togolese officials) to relent in their actions, which will not be acceptable to ECOWAS, the African Union or the international community,” said Senegalese President Abdoulaye Wade, who participated in an ECOWAS summit on Togo that was held in Niger’s capital – Niamey – Wednesday. Niger is currently chair of the regional body.

A proposal was apparently put forward at this meeting by Benin and Ghana to allow Togo a two- to six-month transition period for return to constitutional rule – this on the grounds that pressure from the international community might harden the attitude of authorities in Togo, and lead to widespread violence.

In 1992, a series of demonstrations in the country was brutally suppressed, prompting almost 300,000 people to seek refuge in neighbouring Benin and Ghana. As a result, the European Union (EU) suspended aid to Togo a year later.

“Togo’s neighbors’ more moderate option would maybe have the advantage of calming the present situation a bit, and better preparing the way for a freer and more transparent presidential election,” a Beninese analyst who spoke on condition of anonymity told IPS.

However, the notion of a transition period is said to have been rejected by delegates in Niamey.

In South Africa, President Thabo Mbeki on Friday described events in Togo as an “unconstitutional charade”. As part of the New Partnership for Africa’s Development, the South African leader has spearheaded efforts to attract increased investment to Africa in exchange for good governance.

For his part, Faure Gnassingbe has said that he is open to dialogue, and “ready to hold elections as soon as possible”.

However, Communications Minister Pitang Tchalla later indicated that the new head of state had been referring to legislative elections, which the EU requested be held in order for the body to resume aid to Togo.

Before his departure for Wednesday’s summit in Niger, Beninese President Matthieu Kerekou expressed concern that the situation in Togo might deteriorate into “another Ivory Coast”. This West African country has effectively been divided in two as a result of fighting between government and rebel forces.

Former Beninese president Nicephore Soglo believes that French leader Jacques Chirac, a long-time friend of Gnassingbe Eyadema, will have a key role to play in resolving the Togolese crisis – along with opposition leader Gilchrist Olympio.

Olympio has been the fiercest critic of Togo’s government. His father, Sylvanus Olympio, was the first president to govern the country after independence.

However, the elder Olympio was assassinated in 1963 by a group of soldiers which included Gnassingbe Eyadema – later to assume power after a further coup in 1967. Eyadema remained in office until his death last week, by which time he had become Africa’s longest-serving leader.

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