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UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs
Tuesday 8 February 2005

TOGO: Residents snub new president with stay-home protest, African peers threaten sanctions

LOME, 8 Feb 2005 (IRIN) - Normal business in Togo slowed down on Tuesday but did not come to a complete standstill after an opposition call for a two-day general strike to protest against Faure Gnassingbe seizing the presidency following his father's death.

Traffic in the streets of the capital, Lome, was lighter than usual and most schools were shut. Bank halls and market stalls remained open, but there were few customers.

The government stopped FM transmissions in Lome by Radio France Internationale (RFI) and local radio stations were warned to stop broadcasting the views of those critical of Gnassingbe's takeover.

Togo's military bypassed the constitution and installed Faure Gnassingbe as leader of the tiny West African state on Saturday after his father and Africa's longest-serving head of state, Gnassingbe Eyadema, died as he was being flown abroad for medical treatment.

Following international condemnation of the move as a military coup, Togo's parliament hurriedly rushed through retroactive changes to the constitution on Sunday to make the succession legal.

But this has done little to make worldwide criticism abate.

Late Monday, the African Union's Peace and Security Council branded Gnassingbe's seizure of power "a blatant and unacceptable violation of the Togolese constitution" and threatened to impose sanctions on his regime.

"The sanctions would be a suspension of the country from all organs of the African Union (AU) so they would not be allowed to participate in meetings," AU spokesman Adam Thiam told IRIN by telephone.

With the new president imposing a two-month ban on public demonstrations in Togo, opposition leaders called on the population to stay home for two days instead to show their anger about how democracy was being trampled on.

Gregory, a government employee, was one of thousands of people who heeded the call.

"It's up to us Togolese to react because it is us that are suffering," he told IRIN on Tuesday.

But other people in Lome were going about their business as usual.

"I'm sad about what has happened in our country. But I didn't heed the opposition's call to strike. We've been striking for years in this country and what good has it done us?" said one resident, who declined to give his name.

Outside the capital, which straddles a lagoon on the Atlantic coast, the response was also mixed.

"It's a bit quieter on the streets but we're working here and the day has not really been different to any other," said one Togolese aid worker by telephone from the town of Dapaong, near the northern border with Burkina Faso.

Fear and poverty

Some diplomats said that a complete shutdown was never a realistic option, given high levels of poverty in this nation of five million and the fact that most Togolese were on edge after the weekend's events.

"Stay-aways are hard in a place where the economy has deteriorated. Those people who have jobs cannot afford to stay away," said one Western diplomat in Lome. "And people are very afraid of the security forces. Decades of repression and human rights abuses have created a very strong climate of fear."

On Tuesday there were signs of the state cracking down on the media. RFI was taken off the air and the heads of three privately-owned local radio stations said they were summoned to see the government and asked to stop broadcasting phone-in programmes where listeners talked about the presidential changes.

"This decision curbs the freedom of the press and the freedom of expression," Aristide Kpopufe, the head of Nostalgie FM, one of the affected stations, told IRIN. "People should be able to say what they think about the situation in Togo. "

The newly-inaugurated Gnassingbe was due to address the nation on state television later on Tuesday as worldwide condemnation continued to rain down on the former French colony, sandwiched between Ghana and Benin

"We urge the authorities to ensure a peaceful transition process and to arrange for early credible and democratic presidential elections," the British Foreign Office said in a statement.

France, the United States, regional superpower Nigeria, and the United Nations have all called for a swift and democratic transition after four decades of one-man authoritarian rule.

Under the old constitution, fresh presidential elections should have been held within 60 days of Eyadema's death and interim power should have passed to Fambare Ouattara Natchaba, the head of the national assembly.

But parliament, which is dominated by Eyadema's Rally of the Togolese People (RPT) party, was hastily reconvened to sack Natchaba as the assembly head and appoint 39-year-old Gnassingbe instead in order to legitimise his investiture as head of state.

Parliament also changed the constitution to allow Gnassingbe to serve out the rest of his father's five-year term until 2008.

Leaders of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) are due to discuss the succession crisis in Togo at a summit in Niger on Wednesday.

Meanwhile, the European Union (EU) said the transfer of power in Togo had raised troubling questions about whether it would resume aid to the country.

EU aid has been suspended since 1993 because of concerns over poor governance, lack of democracy and human rights abuses. However, the two sides resumed a dialogue last year raising hopes that European aid money might start flowing into the country again soon.

"This puts everything back to zero. This poses again the problem of democracy and the place the army takes in the regime," Louis Michel, EU commissioner for development and humanitarian aid, told Radio France Internationale.


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