A meeting of rivals

Posted in Africa | 25-May-05 | Author: Noel Kokou Tadegnon| Source: Mail & Guardian Online

Togo's President Faure Gnassingbe (C) sits next to cabinet members.
Newly-elected Togolese President Faure Gnassingbe and various opposition leaders were in the Nigerian capital, Abuja, on Thursday for talks on resolving tensions in their West African country.

Togo was plunged into turmoil when military officials appointed Gnassingbe head of state shortly after the February 5 death of his father, Gnassingbe Eyadema, who had ruled the country since 1967.

Regional and international protests about the unconstitutional nature of Faure Gnassingbe’s appointment obliged him to schedule a presidential election, subsequently held on April 24.

However, the announcement by Togo’s National Independent Electoral Commission that Gnassingbe had won the vote sparked violence in the capital, Lomé, which in turn prompted thousands of people to flee to neighbouring states.

An invitation from the ruling Rally of the Togolese People (Rassemblement du people togolais, RPT) for the opposition to join it in a government of national unity was rejected after last month’s poll.

Reports now indicate that opposition leaders may be softening their position on the matter, although the six-party Union of Forces of Change -- the leading opposition group -- has apparently demanded that alleged vote rigging during the presidential election, and rights abuses, be investigated first.

This probe is to be conducted by an independent international committee of inquiry.

“Establishing such a commission is a prerequisite for any type of discussion to take place,” said coalition coordinator Yaovi Agboyibo.

These words were echoed by Zeus Ajavon, spokesman for a group of civil society organisations.

“We have no confidence whatsoever in independent experts from Togo, or from the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas), or from anywhere in Africa for that matter,” he told journalists. “The situation has to be investigated by an independent international commission.”

Ecowas has been severely criticised by opposition groups for giving its stamp of approval to the April election. On May 12, Togolese state media announced that Gnassingbe had suggested an independent commission of inquiry be established, made up of Togolese nationals.

Gnassingbe’s main rival in the poll, Emmanuel Akitani-Bob, was not present in Nigeria for Thursday’s discussions, reportedly because of ill health. However, the talks were attended by Gilchrist Olympio, leader of the Union of Forces of Change, who was barred from running in the April election.

This was in terms of a law which states that candidates for presidential polls in Togo must reside in the country. Olympio has lived in exile since surviving an assassination attempt in 1992. He is the son of Sylvanus Olympio, Togo’s first democratically elected president, who was himself assassinated by Eyadema in 1963.

The Abuja meeting comes in the wake of a report by the Togolese League for Human Rights (Ligue togolaise des droits de l’Homme, LTDH) stating that over 800 people have lost their lives to political violence since Eyadema’s death. The LTDH, a non-governmental organisation based in Lome, also claims that about 4 500 people have been injured during that time.

“Human rights, before and after the presidential elections, have been violated in Togo. Human dignity is not respected and we are holding the government responsible,” said the league’s vice-president, Eklou Clumson.

The report, released May 14, was to have been launched the day before during a press conference at the headquarters of the LTDH. However, the event was cancelled after about 50 RPT supporters invaded the league’s offices in a bid to disrupt it.

Government has rejected the LTDH allegations, with Communication Minister Pitang Tchalla describing the report as “a joke in poor taste”.

“These figures border on the ridiculous,” he noted. “Before elections were held, the most extremist opposition leaders were already saying that the results would be played out in the streets. As soon as the provisional results were announced, there were violent and concerted actions consistent with this plan.”

Others claim the report is biased in favour of the opposition, saying it fails to take into account RPT supporters who were victimized during the political violence.

Although the number of people fleeing Togo is reported to have decreased, people are still leaving the country for Benin and Ghana. Recent estimates from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees put the number of Togolese refugees in these countries at just over 26 000.

And, reports continue to emerge of harassment by the security forces, which have been accused of staging raids on the homes of opposition supporters over recent weeks.

“We fled when the army attacked our neighborhood, but we came back from Ghana Sunday (May 8) to go back to school, because this is exam time. But Wednesday morning, soldiers went to the school to arrest my brother,” said a young pupil.

Said another, “People are coming back, but they’re also being arrested. That’s why I told my brothers, who are in Benin and Ghana, not to come back yet.” -- IPS