Togolese political crisis spurs regional concerns

The Togolese people are resisting an extra-constitutional power grab initiated by the son of the late president, Gen. Gnassingbe Eyadema, who died of a heart attack on Feb. 5 at the age of 69. Gnassingbe Eyadema led the Togolese Republic for 38 years, making him Africa’s longest ruling leader.

Despite a constitutional provision that says the speaker of the National Assembly is next in line to head the country, the president’s son, Faure Gnassingbe, seized power on the same day with the support of the military. The dominance of the Kabiye ethnic group within the military, the ancestral group of the late president, was regarded as a factor in the military’s decision.

The National Assembly hastily amended the constitution to allow Faure Gnassingbe’s accession to power, but several African leaders quickly condemned the action as unlawful. South African President Thabo Mbeki, for example, called these maneuvers “unconstitutional charade.”

The sub-regional Economic Community of West African States swiftly imposed sanctions on Togo, including suspension from its activities, the recall of ambassadors, an arms embargo and a travel ban on Togolese leaders. It demanded the immediate handover of power to the rightful successor, parliamentary speaker Fambare Natchaba Ouattaba.

The possibility of military intervention by Nigeria, whose leader, President Olusegun Obasanjo, is the current chairperson of the Africa Union, has not been ruled out.

In response to international pressure, including from the African Union’s peace and security council, Faure Gnassingbe announced that a presidential election would be held within 60 days. He has refused to step down in the interim, however.

A demonstration of nearly 10,000 angry citizens in Lome, the nation’s capital, on Feb. 19 reflected growing opposition to the power grab. A week earlier at least three demonstrators were killed in clashes with police. Union leaders have encouraged general strikes against the government, and protests show no sign of abating.

Since the former president’s demise, a media crackdown has occurred. Two television stations and seven privately owned radio stations have been closed. The organization that regulates national media, ART&P, abruptly stipulated that media outlets pay outstanding financial obligations or be shut down.

Togo is a country slightly smaller than West Virginia, situated in West Africa along the coast of Gulf of Guinea and sandwiched between Ghana and Benin. It stretches for 360 miles going north from the ocean and is only 100 miles across at its widest point.

About 21 ethnic groups comprise a total population of about 5.5 million people. The economy is mainly agricultural, with coffee, cocoa and cotton among its most important crops. Its biggest moneymaker is the mining and export of phosphates.

A French colony until its independence was granted in 1960, Togo remained closely aligned with France throughout Gnassingbe Eyadema’s four decades of rule. The French government often came to his defense when he was criticized in international forums for violating democratic and human rights, and the French military still has troops, air bases, and naval bases in the capital.

As in many other African nations, Togo’s people have suffered under economic austerity measures imposed by the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. An estimated 70 percent of Togo’s population lives on less than a dollar a day. The average life expectancy is 53 years.

ronphillyjr@yahoo.com