Sun, Apr 24, 2005 - Page 6 News List

Violence foreshadows Togo election

TIME FOR REFORM?While the opposition hopes the poll will end the ruling party's grip on power, the son of the nation's former dictator is styling himself as a reformer

AP , Lome, Togo

A supporter of the presidential candidate for the opposition coalition attends an election rally in Lome, Togo, Friday. Presidential candidate Bob Akitani is standing for the opposition coalition in an attempt to oust the ruling party from their 38 years of dominance.

PHOTO: EPA

The father was Africa's longest-reigning dictator, ordered his enemies executed, and claimed to be chosen by God.

Now the son is running for president of Togo in a weekend vote already shadowed by violence, with protesters threatening to die fighting if the family of the late dictator Gnassingbe Eyadema maintains its stranglehold on this tiny, impoverished west African country. As tension mounts, Togolese were praying for peace and hoping for democracy.

Togo's interim head of state on Friday vowed the elections will go ahead, and fired a minister who had called for the ballot to be canceled because of fears of bloodshed.

Some 2.2 million people in this nation of 5 million are registered to vote during the 6am to 6pm polling taking place today. Counting was to start immediately, but it was unclear when results would be announced.

The front-runner is Faure Gnassingbe, whose strongman father Gnassingbe Eyadema ruled for 38 years -- longer than any other leader except Fidel Castro.

Eyadema died of a heart attack Feb. 5, ending an oppressive era in which political foes were routinely tortured and killed, dissent was crushed by jackboot security forces and spies prowled the dust-blown boulevards and halls of university campuses.

Togo's military thrust Gnassingbe to power shortly after Eyadema's death, prompting such local and international outrage he stepped down and promised elections in 60 days, as stipulated by the Constitution.

Gnassingbe's three rivals in the race -- Bob Akitani, Harry Olympio and Nicolas Lawson, all longtime opposition members -- have called for the elections to be postponed, charging irregularities in voter registration and exclusion from the electoral process. Their concerns, though, have not prompted them to withdraw.

In the run-up to the vote, riot police have been accused of killing several anti-regime demonstrators. The government recently banned all private TV and radio stations from covering the elections.

On Friday, as questions over whether the vote could go ahead raised tensions, opposition protesters appeared on the streets, wielding machetes and nail-studded clubs.

Gnassingbe is backed by the military and has his father's political machine at his disposal. And as a candidate, his style seems to mimic that of his father, who kept his pinky fingernail aristocratically long and wore expensive suits and gold-rimmed sunglasses.

Gnassingbe -- a businessman educated at George Washington University in the US -- prefers tailored suits and expensive shoes. He buzzed between rallies in a rented white helicopter, unlike his main rival, the 75-year old Akitani, who campaigned in tropical shirts and traversed the country in a four-wheel drive.

Despite the echoes of his father, Gnassingbe presents himself to voters as a modern technocrat, with the youthful energy and fresh ideas it takes to bring reform in a nation where the average annual income is US$270, making it among the poorest in Africa.

"I am the new image of Togolese youth, the new image of Togo," 39-year old Gnassingbe said on a recent campaign stop in the southern town of Keve.

"I'm going to take this country to the next level," he declares. "More freedom, more democracy. It's the only way we can solve our problems."

For Gnassingbe to be taken seriously abroad, he has to escape his father's tall, ominous shadow. But at home, some observers say, Gnassingbe has a real shot at winning the vote if elections are fair.

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