Togo: More deaths and charges of fraud in controversial presidential poll

[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]

LOME, 25 April (IRIN) - At least three people were killed and a score were injured in clashes between government and opposition supporters on Sunday as Togo voted for a new president following 38 years of strong-arm rule by the late Gnassingbe Eyadema.

On Monday, the streets of the capital Lome were tense and largely deserted as people waited to see whether the government would be ousted following Eyadema's death in February.

Voting went off peacefully in most places on Sunday, but tension heightened in Lome as polls closed, with opposition activists accusing the authorities of rigging the ballot in favour of Eyadema's son, Faure Gnassingbe.

Armed men in pickup trucks took away computers from the opposition's results compilation centre and the mobile phone network began to malfunction.

A spokeswoman for 150 observers sent to Togo on behalf of the West African Community of States (ECOWAS) said on Monday that although there were some violent incidents and irregularities, at many polling stations voting on the whole was fair.

"For the moment the information we have is that there was some violence and irregularities, but that in many places the vote was massive, regular and correct," Adrienne Diop told reporters. The monitors will issue a global assessment later on.

On Sunday, sporadic clashes broke out as night fell between supporters of Gnassingbe, backed by the security forces, and the main opposition candidate, Emmanuel Bob-Akitani. Barricades of tyres burned through the night in some neighbourhoods and hospital sources said at least three people were killed by gunfire.

There was little traffic on the normally business streets of the seaside capital on Monday. IRIN correspondents said they saw no signs of continuing violence, but the BBC and Reuters reported isolated outbreaks of fighting.

Diplomats and political analysts predicted further trouble when the election results were eventually announced, since neither camp appeared willing to accept defeat.

The National Election Commission (CENI) was not expected to announce the outcome before Tuesday.

Two sides called to Abuja for AU talks

In an attempt to ward off bloodshed, Nigeria's President Olusegun Obasanjo, who is chairman of the African Union, summoned Gnassingbe and exiled Togolese opposition leader Gilchrist Olympio to Abuja on Monday for crisis talks.

An IRIN correspondent saw both men arrive at the airport of the Nigerian capital.

Olympio was barred from contesting the election because he has lived in exile since 1992, so Bob-Akitani, the deputy leader of his Union of Forces for Change (UFC), stood in as a surrogate.

Former Interior Minister Francois Akila-Esso Boko, who was sacked after a failed last minute bid to suspend the election, sought refuge in the German embassy over the weekend, German diplomats said.

Boko, a former gendarmerie officer who was regarded as a staunch supporter of the Eyadema regime, warned on Friday that arguments over the result could plunge this West African nation of five million people into bloody conflict.

On Sunday, long queues of Togolese voters lined up peacefully to cast their ballot under showers of rain at the country's 5,375 polling stations.

But there were minor incidents at several polling stations.

At the Protestant College in Lome, for example, voters complained that election officials were refusing to accept their voters' cards because parts of the electoral list had gone missing.

The problem was solved, they said, when members of the security forces intervened and found the missing pages.

Faure Gnassingbe oozes confidence

Gnassingbe, 39, cast his vote at a military camp where his father used to spend the night.

Looking confident and relaxed, he told reporters that if elected for an initial five-year term, he would not cling on to power for as long as his father.

"I don't know if I'll enjoy being a president," said the French and US-trained business studies graduate, who was formerly Minister of Mines, Public Works and Telecommunications.

"Things are looking difficult at this time, but this period will not last and then I will probably enjoy it," he added.

Gnassingbe dismissed opposition allegations of vote rigging.

"If they complain of fraud, perhaps that means they think they will lose," he said.

Bob-Akitani, a retired 74-year-old mining engineer, said after casting his vote that the allegedly indelible ink designed to stop multiple voting, could in fact be removed with alcohol.

"In our opinion, the voting process has been stained with many irregularities," he said.

"Voting conditions are very bad," Bob-Akitani added. "But the turnout is massive and this shows that 90 percent of the Togolese people want change."

Allegations of fraud began to mushroom on Sunday afternoon.

The alliance of six opposition parties backing Bob-Akitani complained that armed men in civilian clothes had ransacked its election monitoring office. An IRIN correspondent on the scene saw computer parts strewn outside the entrance to the building. Police and soldiers blocked access to it.

Don't steal the election, opposition says

As the Sunday poll wore on, small groups of voters milled about polling stations in the capital waiting for the counting of the votes to begin. Many said they were worried that the ballot boxes would be nabbed or burnt by the pro-Gnassingbe security forces as soon as night fell.

"We're here to make sure there will be no fraud," one man, who declined to give his name, told IRIN. "We won't allow them to steal the elections again," he added, referring to decades of rigged polls under Eyadema's rule.

Acting Interior Minister Katari Foli-Bazi had told voters to go home immediately after casting their ballots.

But many defied the order, saying that article 119 of the Electoral Code explicitly states, "The counting of the vote is public".

In the opposition stronghold of Tsevie, 15 km from Lome, an IRIN correspondent saw seven members of the security forces arrive at a polling station and threaten to disperse a peaceful crowd of voters with teargas grenades.

"Go home, you can't stay here. Only the party representatives can remain when the votes get counted," a commander said.

The crowd started jeering, saying "they're going to cheat us again," and the soldiers left after a 10-minute standoff.

Complaints from both sides of fraud

Before the ballot closed, Yawovi Agboyibo, the coordinator for the opposition coalition backing Bob-Akitani, showed reporters a pile of more than 700 illegal voting cards that had allegedly been seized at the home of a member of the ruling party, the Rally for the Togolese People (RPT).

"The population has responded to our appeal to turn out in huge numbers to vote," he told IRIN. "But we have serious indications that there has been massive fraud and we are very concerned about what is going to happen."

On the government side, RPT spokesman Drama Dramani told state radio that the opposition had sent droves of youths to polling stations in certain Lome neighbourhoods to drive away representatives of the ruling party, which has fielded Gnassingbe as its candidate.

"The opposition youth took control of the voting in these polling stations and systematically told people how to vote," he said. "The electorate no longer had any choice."

Dramani also accused the opposition of attacking members of the RPT and burning down their homes in the countryside.

In several areas of the capital, the tension exploded into public disorder shortly after the polls closed.

In Hanoukope district for instance, residents said a member of the RPT had closed the polling station and taken the key home. The crowd tried to attack his house, chanting: "We want the key, we want the key," but security forces arrived on the scene and barred access to his home.

In other neighbourhoods, angry youths clad in yellow, the colours of the opposition, set up roadblocks and set alight piles of tyres.

"The counting of the votes is going very, very badly and the security forces have occupied all the voting bureaux," said Kokou Amaglo, an opposition member on the national electoral commission, CENI.

The special ECOWAS envoy sent to oversee the election, Boukar Mai Manga of Niger, told a news conference on Sunday that the very fact the election had been able to go ahead was cause for satisfaction.

"I am satisfied that the presidential elections were held," he said, adding that it was too soon to comment on irregularities.

ECOWAS stepped in to supervise the holding of the poll after Togo's army declared Faure Gnassingbe president immediately after his father's death on 5 February.

This father-to-son transition caused international uproar. Gnassingbe was forced by international pressure to step down after just three weeks and hold a snap election instead.


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