Togolese coup leader forced to step down

Faure Gnassingbe, the son of the late Togolese president, stepped down as interim president on Feb. 25 as a result of international pressure and sanctions imposed by member states of the African Union and ECOWAS, a regional community of 16 West African nations.

Faure Gnassingbe, 39, had been installed as president on Feb. 5 by Togo’s military upon the death of his father, Gen. Gnassingbe Eyadema, in clear violation of the country’s constitution. The move provoked a domestic and international outcry.

Immediately prior to Faure Gnassingbe’s resignation, the Peace and Security Council of the African Union met in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, and issued a statement reiterating its condemnation of “the military coup d’état” and calling for Togo’s exclusion from the African Union. It also endorsed economic and political sanctions imposed by ECOWAS and urged they be maintained until the return of constitutional rule.

The ECOWAS sanctions were lifted soon after Faure Gnassingbe vacated his office.

On the same day, however, Gnassingbe was appointed chairman of his father’s ruling political party, Rassemblement du Peuple Togolaise (RPT). The 3,000 delegates, assembled for a special congress, also gave him a unanimous endorsement as the party candidate for the next presidential election, date unknown. The ruling party controls 79 of 81 Parliament seats.

Before relinquishing the presidency, Faure Gnassingbe appointed Bonfoh Abbass as Togo’s interim president. The following day demonstrators took to the streets to protest his appointment because the original constitution had specifically stated the next-in-line to be the president of the National Assembly, Fambare Ouattara Natchaba, who was out of the country at the time of the coup.

The protesters included thousands of women dressed in red who insisted that constitutional order be restored. Police used tear gas against the demonstrators who also erected barricades and burned tires to convey their frustration. A coalition of opposition groups supported the action.

As more behind-the-scenes information comes to light, the events on the day of the late president’s death are revealing. When National Assembly President Natchaba was returning from Europe, where he was traveling, he happened to be on the same Air France plane bound for Togo’s capital, Lome, as President Gnassingbe Eyadema’s top legal adviser, 67-year-old French law professor Charles Debbasch.

According to journalist Cameron Duodu of The Observer, Debbasch, upon learning of the president’s death, “immediately made an in-flight telephone call to Lome. The pilot of the plane was told in mid-air that he could not land in Lome. The Togolese army then corralled the National Assembly into electing [Faure] Gnassingbe as its president in place of Natchaba. In the meantime, the military sealed Togo’s borders. The plane was diverted to Cotonou, Benin, where Natchaba remains in exile.

Charles Debbasch has been a controversial figure in France, in a legal case involving alleged embezzlement while he headed a foundation of the painter Victor Vasarely. He was convicted in French courts, but the case is under appeal.

The new interim president, Bonfoh Abbass, whose swearing in has been delayed, posted a statement on an official Togo web site that said, “The work [the late president] engaged in must be followed. To reinforce democracy and to ensure development. This is what he wanted for his country.”

Skeptics point out that after 38 years of power, Gen. Gnassingbe Eyadema showed little concern for democracy or popular participation in Togo’s affairs. With his son’s extra-constitutional maneuver, they say, it becomes obvious that the proverbial saying rings true: “The fruit doesn’t fall too far from the tree.”

ronphillyjr@yahoo.com