Africa, Development & Aid, Headlines, Human Rights, Population

POLITICS-TOGO: A Homecoming Marked by Political Uncertainty

Noel Kokou Tadegnon

LOME, May 10 2005 (IPS) - A number of refugees who fled Togo because of violence sparked by the country’s Apr. 24 presidential election have reportedly started going home.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) was quoted as saying that several hundred people had returned to the Togolese capital, Lome, over recent days.

Initially, more than 20,000 people crossed Togo’s west and eastern borders with Ghana and Benin respectively – with the number of refugees split almost equally between the two states. An IPS correspondent at the border in Benin said most of the persons seen entering the country were women and children carrying a few belongings in bundles on their heads.

Certain refugees took up residence in camps or with persons who volunteered to give them shelter; others are staying with friends and relatives. As ethnic groups straddle Togo’s borders with Ghana and Benin, many Togolese belong to the same tribes as citizens of neighbouring countries.

Confrontations between police and opposition supporters in Togo occurred after the Apr. 26 announcement that Faure Gnassingbe had won the presidential poll with just over 60 percent of ballots cast. The National Independent Electoral Commission gave his closest rival, Emmanuel Akitani-Bob, about 38 percent of the vote.

Togo’s constitutional court rejected opposition claims of widespread fraud at the polls, paving the way for Gnassingbe to be sworn in as president on May 4.

But, "We do not accept these results," Akitani-Bob told IPS. "Everyone knows that this court exists just to back up whatever the new government does."

While certain estimates put the number of people killed in post-election violence at about 20, hospital sources say 30 lost their lives. Opposition officials claim up to 100 people are dead as a result of the clashes, but to date, no official death count has been issued.

Zeus Ajavon, a member of a coalition of civil society organisations and unions, has accused Togolese authorities of creating a "climate of terror" in the country by shooting at unarmed civilians and violently raiding homes.

The UNHCR says certain refugees have also reported harassment by Togolese security forces – a claim echoed in interviews done by IPS.

"Soldiers shot at anything that moved," said Anyonam Akakpo, a shopkeeper in the Be neighborhood of Lome, known to be an opposition stronghold.

"Afterwards, they broke into houses to beat people up," he told the agency. Akakpo has fled to Aflao, a town just over the border with Ghana. IPS also gathered testimony of people having been killed or injured in villages close to the town of Aneho, near the border with Benin.

However, the Gnassingbe camp questions these reports.

"We have no reason to be violent," Komi Selom Klassou, the new president’s campaign chief, told journalists recently. "The constitutional court confirmed the election of the candidate of peace, the candidate of reconciliation and national unity. The Togolese people have just realised an enormous victory."

For its part, the government issued a press release May 5 calling on Togolese refugees to return home, adding that steps had been taken "to avoid new confrontations" and to ensure public safety.

The ruling Rally of the Togolese People has also offered to form a government of national unity with the opposition, an offer that was rejected despite regional support for the initiative.

Many opposition figures are bitter about the role played in last month’s election by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), which endorsed the vote after having deployed 150 observers to monitor the poll. The group said irregularities had been noted, but that these were insufficient to undermine the overall legitimacy of the election.

"We…lament the stance of ECOWAS, which has demonstrated complicity with this masquerade and fraud. This institution has lost its credibility," said Akitani-Bob.

Such claims have been bolstered by the actions of one of the ECOWAS observers, Beninese national Martin Assogba, who distanced himself from the group’s statements about the Togolese poll.

Speaking in Benin’s capital, Cotonou, last week, Assogba said his team of observers had made reports to ECOWAS of problems observed in about twenty polling stations in northern Togo on the day of voting. These problems included the use of voting cards to allow children to cast ballots, and the fact that the votes cast at one of the polling stations exceeded the number of registered voters.

Assogba’s claims have been backed up by Alioune Tine, a Senegalese member of the ECOWAS observer mission. The opposition is now demanding that elections be re-held.

Gnassingbe initially assumed the presidency after the death of his father, longtime ruler Gnassingbe Eyadema, in February. This violated the Togolese constitution, which required the speaker of the national assembly, Fambare Natchaba, to take over as head of state – and govern the country for two months while presidential elections were being organised.

International pressure ultimately obliged Faure Gnassingbe to step down, and schedule a vote.

However, observers have noted that the preparation time allowed for this poll failed to take into account the fact that 38 years of iron-fisted rule by Eyadema had left Togo ill-equipped to hold genuinely democratic elections. The Rally of the Togolese People was viewed as being firmly in control of the various government departments in charge of the poll – and likely to have an inbuilt advantage for the Apr. 24 vote.

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