27 April 2005

Togo: Politics-Togo:Opposition Defies Official Poll Results

Lome — Emmanuel Akitani-Bob, an opposition candidate in the presidential election held Sunday in Togo, declared himself winner of the poll Wednesday. This came a day after the National Independent Electoral Commission (CENI) announced that Faure Gnassingbe, son of deceased head of state Gnassingbe Eyadema, was the provisional winner.

Tuesday's announcement was greeted with outrage by opposition supporters, who erected barricades and burned tires in the Togolese capital, Lome, to protest the outcome of the poll.

Although police responded by firing teargas and attempting to dismantle the barricades, this only served to spur on the supporters. "We're going to put up even more barricades, and make this country ungovernable," Celestin Soke, a 28-year-old apprentice tailor, told IPS.

Similar scenes could be viewed in the city Wednesday, when fresh protests broke out. A dozen demonstrators are said to have been killed by gunfire, while several others were injured.

Thousands of Gnassingbe supporters also demonstrated in the capital, many arriving by bus from northern Togo, a Gnassingbe stronghold, armed with clubs and machetes.

According to CENI Chairperson Kissem Tchangai Walla, Gnassingbe garnered 60.22 percent of the vote, and Akitani-Bob 38.19 percent.

Harry Olympio, considered a more moderate opposition candidate, won 0.55 percent of the vote - in which almost two-thirds of those eligible to cast ballots did so. However, the commission noted that the count did not reflect votes placed in ballot boxes that had been destroyed by demonstrators.

"I'm very happy about the outcome," Komi Selom Klassou, director of Gnassingbe's campaign, told journalists. "The president said that his victory would be a victory for all the Togolese people. You can be sure that he plans to reach out to all citizens in order to build a stable Togo."

For its part, the opposition swiftly claimed that "massive fraud" had taken place, not only during the election itself, but also in the verification of voter lists, and the distribution of voting cards.

Youths who gathered in the streets could be heard chanting "They stole our victory."

Concerns about these matters had led Akitani-Bob, Olympio and another presidential candidate, Nicolas Lawson, to call for a postponement of the vote, (Lawson later withdrew from the race). Interior Minister Francois Boko called for the poll to be suspended - an appeal which resulted in him being sacked. The minister is since reported to have taken refuge in the German embassy.

The electoral campaign was also punctuated by incidents of violence, with rival militants clashing in several neighborhoods of the capital over the weekend of Apr. 16-17. Six ruling party members and one opposition supporter are said to have died in these incidents.

"We refuse to accept that for the umpteenth time, they are stealing the election out from under us," Jean Pierre Fabre, general secretary of the Union of Forces of Change (UFC), told IPS. This group forms part of a six-party coalition represented at the polls by Akitani-Bob.

UFC is also the party of exiled opposition leader Gilchrist Olympio, a long-time opponent of Eyadema until the latter's death in February this year.

Gnassingbe took over as head of state after his father's death with the support of Togo's military - but agreed to hold elections after global leaders denounced the move as unconstitutional. He stood as the candidate for the ruling Rally of the Togolese People.

Many Togolese opponents of Gnassingbe, who came across the border from Ghana and now occupy part of the capital, are calling for mass resistance to the new regime. The opposition is also calling on its supporters to "mobilize, and resist" the government.

Cheick Oumar Diarra, assistant executive secretary of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), which deployed 150 election observers to Togo, said that several irregularities had been noted in Sunday's poll. However, these were not sufficiently serious to cast doubt on the election's credibility.

Adote Ghandi Akwe, president of the Togolese League for Human Rights, disagreed with this assessment - citing the absence of monitors during vote counting. This, he noted, was in violation of electoral law.

Another non-governmental organisation, Initiative 150, issued a statement claiming that numerous attempts had been made to stuff ballot boxes in polling stations where opposition representatives were denied access.

"After the election, hooded militiamen grabbed away ballot boxes by force, which, according to law, are supposed to be opened in public," the group added.

Gnassingbe has said he intends forming a government of national unity to calm the situation in Togo.

However, Gilchrist Olympio rejected this offer, describing Sunday's poll as a "charade". Instead, he is calling for a revision of Togolese law to allow for fresh elections within the next two years.

Attacks against French expatriates in Lome have also been reported. Many Togolese believe France played a key part in helping Eyadema hold on to power for 38 years, (the former leader seized control of the country during a 1967 coup).

In addition, more than 1,000 Togolese fleeing violence caused by the contested election sought refuge Tuesday in Benin, according to the mayor's office in the border town of Grand-Popo, contacted by IPS Wednesday.

With additional reporting by Ali Idrissou-Toure in Cotonou

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