Why Togo matters

Posted in Africa | 10-May-05 | Author: Robert LaGamma| Source: International Herald Tribune

Togolese police patrol in Be district, the opposition stronghold in Lome.
WASHINGTON The West African country of Togo should have celebrated Independence Day on April 27. Instead, battling rioters and security forces filled the streets of its its cities and towns.

A day earlier, official results had been announced from elections held on April 24, giving victory to Faure Gnassingbé, son of Africa's longest serving dictator, the late Gnassingbé Eyadéma. The eruption was immediate.

Opposition leader Emmanuel Akitani-Bob said he won. The U.S. government declared that the polling was flawed, and raised serious questions about the vote count. Returns from one province showed the former president's son won more votes than the total number of registered voters in the province.

Despite this, West African election observers, to their shame, bowed before to the government, claiming that despite problems, the voting was good enough. The constitutional court duly certified the results, and last Wednesday, Faure Gnassingbé, 39, was sworn in as president.

Now it is incumbent on the international community to brand Togo's government as illegitimate and so isolate the virus of dictatorship before it again infects other African nations.

Meanwhile, it is important to understand why Togolese frustration with the old order is so strong - and why this slice of West Africa matters.

During his 38-year reign, Eyadéma compiled a formidable record of brutality and human rights violations. Under the cover of the cold war his excesses were papered over in the West. Yet this right-wing military man adopted the strategy of Lenin and Mao to consolidate his power through a centralized, single party and all the trappings of a cult of personality.

The leader was extolled in song and dance, his life rendered legendary even in comic books. A wristwatch was sold on which his visage was displayed every 20 seconds. The big man's image was plastered everywhere and his every utterance carried by the media.

In recent times, military dictatorship fell out of fashion in Africa. But until his sudden death earlier this year, Eyadéma managed to counter every threat to his dictatorial rule.

After he died, the Togolese Constitution called for the president of the National Assembly to serve as interim head of state until elections were held two months later. But the assembly president withdrew and handed the interim presidency to the late president's son, Faure Gnassingbé.

Strong international reaction forced him to back down. African democracies reacted out of the fear that allowing what amounted to another Togolese coup might lead to a new round of dictatorships in the region.

That left Togo, a country where free elections were unknown, with a month to prepare for them. And it did so with election machinery in the hands of a government controlled by the dictator's ruling party.

Under those circumstances, none of the credible international election monitoring bodies, after investigating the conditions on the ground, considered it worthwhile to send observers. Only the West African Economic Community (ECOWAS) did.

Its seal of approval raised serious questions about the commitment of Togo's African neighbors to democracy. They seem satisfied that a sham election is an acceptable substitute for a coup d'état.

What is clear is that an opportunity has been missed. Instead of hasty, ill-prepared elections, Togo and countries like it, coming out of years of dictatorship, need more than a quick-fix election to make the transition to a government grounded in the will of its people.

To do so would probably have required a national conference of representatives of all groups and the development of a new constitution.

One can only hope that all is not lost and that Togo avoids sliding into the level of chaos we have seen in Côte d'Ivoire and Liberia. Only a strong commitment of the European Union and the United States, combined with concerned African democracies, can prevent that outcome.

The government that takes over after bad elections must be branded as illegitimate, and Togo must be helped to prepare a real transition. Not to do so will be a serious blow to democracy in Africa.

(Robert R. LaGamma is executive director of the Council for a Community of Democracies. He retired from the U.S. Foreign Service after serving extensively in Africa, including Togo.)