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Togo ruling family faces increasingly determined opposition

25 september 2012, 09:59
0
The leader of a stick-wielding mob, a small axe dangling from a rope around his neck, made no secret of why they had come: to stop a protest organised by opposition and civil society groups, AFP reports.

But he insisted their actions did not involve politics, saying the mob wanted to protect the elderly people in the neighbourhood. If police fired tear gas at the protest -- as they often do -- it may harm residents, he said.

"What we are doing has nothing to do with politics," he said not long before the mob pulled a motorcycle rider off his bike for unclear reasons and repeatedly hit him. "It is just social."

Police stood by and watched as they roamed the street, and protest organisers canceled the demonstration, accusing the mob of being a ruling party militia.

The September 15 incident seemed to be another chapter in a cat-and-mouse game ahead of parliamentary elections in this small west African nation run by the same family for more than four decades.

The elections are due in October, but they are widely expected to be delayed.

While change has swept other parts of the world over the past couple of years, Togo, an impoverished and largely agricultural nation under French rule before independence in 1960, can sometimes feel like a throwback to another era.

Lingering suspicions over an alleged coup bid in 2009 have added to tensions, with the president's half-brother sentenced to 20 years in prison and 32 others to a range of jail terms over the incident last year.

Opposition and civil society groups have been organising protests that the government seeks to prevent, usually with police firing tear gas. It recently banned demonstrations in commercial areas of the capital Lome.

Clashes have occasionally broken out between protesters and security forces.

The Let's Save Togo coalition has been calling the protests over a range of demands, most notably the departure of President Faure Gnassingbe, who was installed in power by the army after his father's death in 2005 and who won elections a few months later and again in 2010.

Women even called for a sex strike at one point in support of the coalition.

More protests are planned for Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday which may be volatile since they are to be held in an area of Lome where marches are banned.

"We are done holding elections just to please others -- to please and help a fraudulent regime and to please the West. It's over," said Jean-Pierre Fabre, leader of the opposition National Alliance for Change who demands sweeping electoral reforms.

Fabre finished second to Gnassingbe in 2010 elections and disputes the results.

-- 'What will happen next?' --

Gnassingbe's supporters describe a more complex situation, saying the government is taking real steps toward change, but that it will have to come gradually in a country where the military wields major power.

Ethnic tensions also come into play, with the Kabye ethnic group from the country's north viewed as having dominated politics and the security forces.

The president, whose father was a general who ruled for 38 years, has signaled intentions to move toward reforms, and observers have noted that 2010 presidential elections were a significant improvement over the 2005 polls, which were marred by deadly violence.

Gilbert Bawara, minister of territorial administration, has sought to portray the opposition as simply power hungry with no real plan to run the country. He accused them of being fixated on Gnassingbe yielding power.

"And then what?" Bawara said, suggesting that the opposition may not be able to control the army if it came to power now. "What will happen next?"

He defended the government's decision to ban demonstrations in commercial areas, saying such marches posed a threat to public order and prevented merchants from operating their businesses.

The opposition says it is fed up and has no trust in Gnassingbe, arguing that previous agreements to move closer to true democracy have not been implemented. It is seeking top-to-bottom reforms throughout Togolese institutions.

The major opposition groups boycotted a recent government-led dialogue on electoral reform saying they had no faith in the process.

The dialogue resulted in a recommendation to limit presidents to two five-year terms, but it was not specified whether it would apply immediately, leaving open the possibility that Gnassingbe could remain in office until 2025.

Meanwhile, frustration over the economy has helped feed protests. Declines in cotton production and a stagnant phosphate industry have contributed to its struggles.

"It is the combination of all of this anger that has been exploited in this way," said Dimas Dzikodo, editor of the privately run Togolese paper Forum de la Semaine.

For some merchants in the central Lome neighbourhood of Deckon, where the government has sought to prevent protests, it was less about who was right than about fixing the economy.

"If the economic situation is better, we don't care who is president or not," Kuegah Toyo Loic, 25, said while at his brothers' mobile phone shop. "We just want to eat."

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