Togo

Togo: Opposition takes to the streets as Togo braces for a turbulent election

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

LOME, 22 Apr 2005 (IRIN) - Thousands of opposition supporters swathed in yellow took to the streets of Lome on Friday insisting that people power would remove the government, even if opposition candidate Emmanuel Bob Akitani were declared the loser of Sunday's presidential election.

Many of them carried knives, hammers and iron bars, a sign of possible trouble to come as Togo heads towards a hastily organised poll which one influential minister tried to cancel at the last moment. He voiced fears that it would plunge this small West African country into bloody conflict.

Flashing 'V' signs, blowing whistles and sharpening their machetes on the pavement, the opposition supporters were defiant and confident.

"Me, I am going to support my candidate because I want change and we are ready to die for our freedom," said one muscular man of about 30 brandishing a machete. He wore a yellow tee-shirt, a yellow bandana round his head and a yellow cloth wound round the wrist of his machete hand.

Other opposition supporters drove by on cars and mopeds waving green, yellow and red national flags.

Government supporters, who have clashed repeatedly with the opposition in street fighting in recent weeks, were nowhere to be seen.

"Suicidal electoral process"

Interior Minister Francois Esso Boko summoned journalists and diplomats for a press conference at 2 a.m. on Friday morning to announce that the presidential election should be suspended.

He called for a transitional government to be formed, headed by a figure from the opposition, to rule Togo for a period of one to two years while the country drew up a new constitution.

"It is essential that the President of the Republic takes into account the very real risks which are visible on the horizon by ending this suicidal electoral process," Esso Boko said.

"We have reliable information that there is a very real risk of a slide into bloodshed as a result of this poll whose outcome is uncertain," said the interior minister, former officer in the paramilitary gendarmerie, who was charged with maintaining internal security.

But a few hours later, Interim President Abass Bonfoh sacked Esso Boko and announced that the election would go ahead as planned.

The transitional leader said Esso Boko he had spoken without consulting him. He appointed Justice Minister Karari Foli-Bazi to take over the interior ministry on a provisional basis.

"The forces of order and security have taken the necessary measures for the presidential election to take place in calm and serenity. Public order will be maintained," Bonfoh said in a statement read out for him by Information Minister Pitang Tchalla.

The election is expected to be a straight fight between Faure Gnassingbe, the son of Togo's late president Gnassingbe Eyadema who died in February after ruling the country with an iron hand for 38 years, and Bob Akitani, who is backed by an alliance of six opposition parties determined to drive the Eyadema family from power.

However, neither side appeared willing on Friday to concede defeat, whatever the official result of the ballot.

Neither side will accept defeat

Esso Boko, a veteran supporter of Eyadema's regime, warned that the army would try to stage a coup if Gnassingbe were defeated at the polls and that the opposition would take to the streets to seize power through a popular uprising if Bob Akitani were denied victory.

"If on the evening after the elections they announce the victory of the candidate of the regime, things are going to go very badly indeed," Jean Pierre Fabre, the deputy leader of the Union of Forces for Change (UFC), the largest party in the opposition alliance, told IRIN on Friday.

The UFC leader and eminence grise behind the opposition campaign is Gilchrist Olympio. He was banned from standing as a candidate in the presidential election because he has been living in exile in France for several years.

The opposition packed about 10,000 people into the national stadium in Lome for a final campaign rally on Friday afternoon.

The alliance has been calling for several weeks for the presidential election to be postponed, fearing that it will be rigged by the government and Eyadema's ruling Rally of the Togolese People (RPT) party in favour of the deceased president's son.

But Bob Akitani told his supporters at the rally that unless the poll was cancelled at the last moment, they should go out and vote.

"You must seek your freedom, you must seek your independence by turning out massively to vote on Sunday," he said.

The opposition has accused the government of preparing rig the poll in favour of Gnassingbe by packing the electoral roll with false names and preventing thousands of opposition supporters from being issued with voting cards.

ECOWAS says poll must go ahead

Bonfoh's decision to proceed with the controversial poll was backed by President Mamadou Tandja of Niger, the current chairman of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS).

Tandja described Esso Boko's attempt to try to abort the vote at the last minute as "irresponsible."

ECOWAS was instrumental in bringing about the presidential election in the first place. After Eyadema's death on 5 February, the army installed his son as head of state in defiance of the constitution.

However, ECOWAS, backed by the African Union, United Nations and all the main western powers, forced Gnassingbe to step down three weeks later and seek election through the ballot box.

Gnassingbe's slick and well-financed campaign has daubed Lome with massive campaign posters and his campaign slots appear constantly on television.

His heartland of support lies in northern Togo, where his father's Kabiye ethnic group lives.

Gnassingbe closed his campaign there with a rally in Kara, the main town in northern Togo, 400 km north of the capital.

He urged his supporters not to be put off by Esso Boko's sudden change of heart about the election "What has happened should not unnerve you," Gnassingbe said in a speech broadcast on national radio.

"Should we be afraid of elections which we are sure to win?" he asked, dismissing suggestions that Togo was headed for civil war.

In recent weeks, the Gnassingbe campaign has managed to assemble large crowds of supporters in the seaside capital Lome, but his supporters there decided to stay at home on Friday, leaving the opposition to rule the streets.

"This is the yellow revolution," said Chile Adobo, a spokesman for the alliance backing Bob Akitani.

"We will no longer allow ourselves to be trampled upon by the regime....Faure cannot win. It is just not possible. Victory belongs to us," he told IRIN.

[ENDS]

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