Violent rioting, deaths follow disputed election in Togo

Saturday, April 30, 2005

Immediately after the provisional election returns in the West African nation of Togo were given last Tuesday, violence and chaos erupted with security forces beating and shooting protesters, who object to the fairness of the Togolese elections and allege widespread fraud. Some of the opposition leaders who were targeted are said to have been unarmed or even found by security forces in their homes, and police have fought in fiery pitched battles against rioters for days, employing tear gas behind burning barricades. At least 40 Togolese citizens have been killed.

The elections were won by Faure Gnassingbé, son of the previous leader Gnassingbé Eyadéma, who held power in Togo for about 38 years before his death on February 5, 2005. The army appointed his son as his successor and the country's leader, but regional opposition forced him to step down and seek free elections.

The preliminary count indicates that 60% of the vote went to Faure Gnassingbé, a 38-year-old Master of Business Administration (MBA) from Yale University and son of the former President. An additional 38% went to his chief opponent, 74-year-old Emmanual Bob-Akitani, who was endorsed by a six-party coalition and opposition leader Harry Olympio. Further violence is expected as the official vote tally and announcement of results comes within a few days.

"Just after the [preliminary] results were announced the red berets [commandos] went out into the streets and started shooting at the boys," said Marthe, who fled to a U.N. refugee camp in Benin to escape the fighting. "They only shot at the boys. They ransacked shops and blamed the youths, who were unarmed," she continued in her Reuters interview. More than 11,500 Togolese have fled from their country and taken up temporary residence in Benin and Ghana since the elections, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

The opposition party claims that 100 people have been killed in the ongoing violence that passed through Lome and other villages. Togo's Human Rights League has verified the deaths of at least 40, and the wounding of many others.

"Violence is not the way to deal with democracy," said Mohammed Ibn Chambas, executive secretary of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). "We think the way forward is for Togolese to use dialogue, and to sit down and negotiate." ECOWAS has certified the elections as free from interference, a decision that some countries such as France have accepted, but the United States continues to question the fairness of the outcome.

Germany protested after its cultural center, the Goethe Institute, was burned down in Lomé. The Togolese government has accused Germany of aiding the opposition, and former interior minister Francois Boko (who was fired earlier for trying to postpone the election due to fears of violence) has sought refuge in the German embassy. Togo is a former German colony, but the official language of the country is French, since it was passed to Britain and France in 1918 and only gained its independence in 1960.

Gnassingbé has offered to form a new unity government, incorporating voices from the opposition, but their leaders turned down the offer, claiming that the election was fraudulent and stolen.

"If they refuse tomorrow, I hope that they will decide to join us the next day," said Gnassingbé to France's Le Monde in their Friday edition. "Reconciliation is a long process. You can't jump overnight from a regime that lasted for 38 years to a new one," he continued.