UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs
TOGO: Six dead and dozens injured in pre-election violence
LOME, 18 Apr 2005 (IRIN) - At least six people were killed and dozens were injured in weekend clashes between government and opposition supporters in Lome, the capital of Togo, as tension mounted ahead of presidential elections that will usher in a new era after four decades of rule by the late Gnassingbe Eyadema.
Hospital officials told IRIN that six people died and 35 were hurt in fighting that erupted after exiled opposition leader Gilchrist Olympio returned home briefly to address a huge rally in Lome on Saturday.
Four of those treated in hospital were suffering from bullet wounds, they added.
Both sides blamed each other for the violence, but eyewitness and human rights groups said the thugs most visible in the streets appeared to be armed militants of Eyadema's ruling Rally of the Togolese People (RPT).
The 24 April election pits Eyadema's son and heir apparent, Faure Gnassingbe, against a united opposition candidate, Emmanuel Bob-Akitani, who is standing as a proxy of Olympio.
Saturday's clashes occurred as opposition supporters spilled into the streets dressed in yellow to welcome home Olympio. The veteran oppositon leader was banned from standing in the election on the grounds that he had not been resident in Togo for 12 months before the poll.
Human rights groups and witnesses reported seeing bands of armed men riding in vehicles through the streets wearing RPT or Faure Gnassingbe T-shirts. They were carrying army-issue teargas grenades as well as rifles and nail-studded clubs.
An IRIN correspondent met one 16-year-old boy whose thigh had been pierced in several places. He said he had been beaten with a nail-studded club on his way home from school.
The clashes continued on Sunday as Gnassingbe held his first major rally in Lome, but no serious casualties were reported
Dressed all in white, Gnassingbe arrived by helicopter in the national stadium to the cheers of an estimated 30,000 RPT supporters.
The 39-year-old business studies graduate promised free primary education for all his country's 5.5 million people and a deal to restore aid flows from the European Union (EU).
Brussels suspended all aid to Togo in 1993 in protest at human rights abuses and poor governance by his father's regime.
Outside, in the city streets, the security forces used tear gas to end stone throwing and fighting between government and opposition supporters in several areas of the port city. Barricades of burning tyres blazed well into the night.
The presidential election was triggered by Eyadema's sudden death in office on 5 February. The late president began life as a foot soldier in the French colonial army. He seized power in a 1967 coup and ruled this tiny nation with an iron hand for 38 years, becoming Africa's longest-serving head of state.
The six-party opposition coalition fielding Bob-Akitani for president has accused the government and the ruling RPT of preparing to rig next Sunday's poll in favour of Gnassingbe in order to perpetuate the Eyadema family's stranglehold over national life.
It has repeatedly demanded that the hastily organised poll be delayed by three months to allow greater transparency and more vigilance by foreign monitors.
The opposition call for a postponement won the backing of local church leaders on Friday. Roman Catholic Archbishop Philippe Fanoko Kpodzro and other religious leaders met with interim president Abass Bonfoh to seek a postponement.
But Olympio, the son of Togo's first president, Sylvanus Olympio, squashed speculation that the opposition might pull out of the presidential election at short notice "unless things deteriorate this week."
"We are still protesting, but we have decided to go ahead," he said in an interview with Radio Ghana. "If we go to the elections we will have problems; if we boycott them we will have problems also. But the conditions under which we are going to hold next Sunday's elections are very unsatisfactory."
Olympio was also more conciliatory than many of his supporters towards the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), which forced Faure Gnassingbe to step aside as head of state after he seized power following his father's death.
ECOWAS obliged the government of Togo to hold a presidential election to choose Eyadema's successor, but since then the opposition has accused the organisation's election advisers in Togo of allowing the authorities to rig the electoral roll ahead of the vote.
"ECOWAS has not so far been very effective," Olympio admitted. "They have only three people on the ground and it is difficult to get any message to them.We wish ECOWAS had more practical support from the African Union, from the European Union and from the United Nations."
Yawovi Agboyibo, a spokesman for the opposition alliance, told IRIN that the opposition was campaigning under the constant threat of violence and intimidation.
"The climate is extremely tense," he said. "No single person feels safe to venture out wearing a T-shirt or scarf in opposition colours."
Gnassingbe, who is standing as the RPT presidential candidate, condemned the pre-election violence and disassociated himself from it.
"I condemn all acts of political violence, no matter where they come from," he told the RPT rally on Sunday.
Violence has shadowed the campaign from the start.
One man was killed and several were injured 10 days ago when opposition protestors clashed with police in the capital and in several towns in the interior of Togo.
And in early March three corpses were fished out of a lagoon in Lome and two bodies found on the streets after opposition protests.
The presidential election is expected to be a straight race between Gnassingbe and Bob-Akitani, with two minor candidates picking up only a handful of votes.
The decision to hold the election was taken on 3 March, leaving the authorities only six weeks to organise the ballot.
Diplomats said that was not very long to organise a demonstrably free and fair election in a country that has been repeatedly criticised for electoral fraud and human rights violations.
The EU has refused to send observers to monitor the vote.
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