TOGO: West African leaders approve new interim president, pledge election help
LOME, 1 Mar 2005 (IRIN) - West African leaders have welcomed Togo back into the fold following the resignation of army-installed president, Faure Gnassingbe. The presidents of Niger and Mali flew to Lome to meet the new interim head of state, Abass Bonfoh, and help the West African nation plan fresh elections.
Gnassingbe, the 39-year-old son of deceased president Gnassingbe Eyadema, finally bowed to intense international pressure and stepped down on Friday night. Bonfoh, the vice-president of the national assembly, was subsequently nominated acting head of state.
Niger President Mamadou Tandja, the current chairman of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), flew into Togo's seaside capital on Monday to meet Bonfoh and give him the international seal of approval.
Tandja, whose own country is widely regarded as a model of democracy in West Africa, was accompanied by Malian President Amadou Amani Toure and Mohamed Ibn Chambas, the Executive Secretary of ECOWAS.
"ECOWAS approves the choice of Mr Bonfoh and elections should happen as soon as possible," the 15-nation body said in a statement issued after the team had met with Togolese government officials and opposition leaders.
This green light disappointed Togolese opposition leaders who maintain that the constitution is still being violated, despite Gnassingbe's departure.
They want Fambare Ouattara Natchaba, the former head of the national assembly who was shoved aside by Gnassingbe and his military supporters following Eyadema's death, to oversee the elections process.
Natchaba was in Europe when the 69-year-old president died on 5 February. Although he hurried home, his plane was prevented from landing in Togo and he has been lying low in neighbouring Benin ever since.
A coalition of the six main opposition parties has pledged to continue its weekly protest demonstrations in Lome, but the Natchaba issue appears to be done and dusted as far as ECOWAS is concerned.
The West African body is now turning its attention to the organisation of fair polls in a country which was ruled by one man as his personal fiefdom for almost four decades.
ECOWAS said it was appointing Mai Manga Boukar, an electoral expert from Niger, as its special envoy to Togo to oversee the election preparations. It also pledged to provide three other electoral experts to help organise the polls.
In its statement, ECOWAS noted the need for "transparent, free and fair" elections in 60 days as laid down in Togo's constitution. The constitution was tweaked by Gnassingbe to legitimise his seizure of power, but he hastily revoked these changes after ECOWAS and the African Union imposed sanctions against his regime.
Togo's constitution once again stipulates that if the president dies, the 'electoral body' must be convened within 60 days to choose a new leader. But there is some disagreement amongst Togo's political players about whether that means actually holding elections or simply announcing them.
"The constitution demands that we have elections in 60 days," said Dama Dramani, the secretary-general of the ruling Rally of the Togolese People (RPT) party.
But Leopold Gnininvi, the leader of the Democratic Convention of the African People (CDPA) opposition party, came forward with a different interpretation.
"The constitution doesn't demand the holding of presidential elections within 60 days, rather telling the 'electoral body' about them within that timeframe," he told IRIN.
"There are certain problems that need resolving before elections take place," Gnininvi said. "For example 24 percent of voters on the electoral roll are fictitious and our electoral code is still in preparation," the softly-spoken professor of mathematics and physics added.
Another bone of contention for the opposition is a constitutional clause stipulating that all presidential candidates must have lived in Togo for 12 months prior to the election.
This could be used to prevent Gilchrist Olympio, the exiled leader of the main opposition party, the Union of Forces for Change (UFC), from standing against Gnassingbe, who has already been chosen as the presidential candidate for the ruling RPT party.
Olympio, who was prevented from standing against Gnassingbe's father in the 2003 presidential election, has lived in Paris for several years.
Although Gnassingbe played fast and loose with the constitution to legitimise his own brief seizure of power, those seeking to prevent Olympio from standing against him might well point to an article which prevents the charter from being amended during the rule of an interim president.
As the to-ing and fro-ing continues, the clock is ticking fast. It has already been 24 days since Eyadema died.
A statement issued after Bonfoh's first cabinet meeting, said Eyadema's funeral would be held on 13 March.