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UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs
Wednesday 4 May 2005

TOGO: Gnassingbe sworn in, opposition left with limited options

LOME, 4 May 2005 (IRIN) - As Faure Gnassingbe succeeded his father as president of Togo on Wednesday, a crushed opposition mulled its next move, with most observers predicting that eventually it would have to compromise and enter into some sort of unity government.

Urban warfare erupted in Togo's capital Lome and other cities last week following the initial announcement of Gnassingbe's victory but it failed to snowball into a full-scale uprising as the army, stacked with people belonging to his father's tribe, waded in quickly to stamp out resistance.

Gnassingbe has proffered the olive branch and invited his opponents to join a government of national reconciliation, but opposition leaders have refused to cut a deal with a new president whom they believe propelled himself to power by rigging an election.

"The opposition's reaction was predictable but the big question is whether it's sustainable in the long run," said Alex Vines, head of the Africa programme at London-based research group, Chatham House. "They don't seem to have very much choice as the position of the (West Africa) region was always to compromise."

Even before the election results were announced last week, Nigerian President and regional heavyweight Olusegun Obasanjo tried to broker a deal where the two sides would form a unity government no matter who won.

A delegation from the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) jetted into Lome to try to hatch a similar compromise at the weekend after the provisional election results sparked days of pitched battles between young opposition activists and the security forces. They left empty-handed.

The opposition -- who were in the wilderness for the four decades that Gnassingbe's father, Gnassingbe Eyadema, held sway -- may be digging in their heels, but diplomats say they do not have much of a long-term strategy.

Rather there is likely to be a cooling-off period after the recent political violence that killed about 100 people nationwide according to diplomatic sources. Then at some point the opposition will begrudgingly agree to talk to the new president, probably with representatives from the international community acting as referee.

Four decades of mistrust

"There's such a level of mistrust between the two sides, 38 years of mistrust in fact, that there's going to have to be an international mediator," said one Western diplomat in Lome.

If recent comments from the opposition are anything to go by, that mediator is unlikely to be ECOWAS.

"ECOWAS has behaved like a bull in a china shop," Jean-Pierre Fabre, a spokesman for the opposition Union of Forces for Change, told IRIN this week.

ECOWAS weighed in after Gnassingbe seized power with the backing of the army within hours of his father's death in February. The 15-nation body forced the son to quit and hold new elections in 60 days.

But some observers say that by making Togo follow its constitution to the letter, ECOWAS signed off on an election where the best-known opposition leader was barred from standing and where an old and disputed electoral register was used to issue voting cards.

With the opposition so critical of ECOWAS, diplomats say that the African Union, the European Union or even the United Nations could step into the mediator shoes.

The EU has first-hand experience of negotiations with Togo's factions, after helping establish 22 commitments in April 2004 to promote democracy and civil liberties in this tiny West African nation.

It also has a financial stick that it can wield to exert pressure on the government in Lome. The EU cut off aid to the former French colony in 1993 because of "democratic deficiencies" and analysts say that Gnassingbe would have to prove he had broken with the past before aid would start to flow again.

For the opposition, the only alternative to political negotiation is continued resistance but many of its young activists have already fled across the border or escaped to rural Togo to stay with family. And any attempt by those that remain is likely to meet with heavy-handed repression.

Lull in violence -- for now

Some diplomats and residents had been fearing fresh explosions of violence this week -- either when the definitive election results were announced on Tuesday or when Gnassingbe was formally sworn in as president on Wednesday -- but extra troops on the streets helped deter any would-be rioters.

"My guess is that the widespread violence is over for the time being because the military has intimidated the population. They have been going into neighbourhoods and beating people up. People are still very frustrated and angry but there's no real outlet now," the Western diplomat said.

Some of the young opposition activists resent the fact that they were risking their lives fighting on the streets while their elderly leaders, including 74-year-old presidential candidate Emmanuel Bob-Akitani, were hidden away in safe houses.

"I don't want to get mixed up in this again. I'm going to start thinking about my own life," one man, who would only give his name as Messan told IRIN, glancing anxiously about him before hurrying off down a dusty side street.

Others are disenchanted with what they say is the opposition's lack of direction.

"I really believed they could make things change, but now I just don't know. I feel completely lost," sighed Ayayi, a young activist sat astride his moped.

Late Lawson, a 25-year-old mechanic, who is now living in a refugee camp in Benin, said he had left Togo because the battle was one-sided. "If we had weapons we could fight on an equal footing," he said. "But we don't have any weapons."

However, not everyone is downbeat and some activisits even say they are lying low ahead of a new wave of protests against Gnassingbe and his ruling Rally of the Togolese People (RPT).

"We'll prove our strength to the RPT, I'm convinced of it," declared 22-year-old Blaise, a university law student.

Meanwhile aid workers are worrying about the impact of a protracted crisis in this nation of five million that lies in the middle of an already conflict-weary region.

The UN refugee agency (UNHCR) said on Wednesday that over 20,000 Togolese refugees had fled to neighbouring Benin and Ghana in just over a week and more were continuing to cross the border.

"This political crisis could result in a humanitarian crisis, and the worst-case scenario is having a situation similar to that in Cote d'Ivoire," said Elizabeth Byrs of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).

"A protracted crisis in Togo could further weaken the fragile economic and social conditions in Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger that had been already seriously hit by the crisis in Cote d'Ivoire."

[ENDS]

This material comes to you via IRIN, a UN humanitarian information unit, but may not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations or its agencies. If you re-print, copy, archive or re-post this item, please retain this credit and disclaimer. Quotations or extracts should include attribution to the original sources. All materials copyright © UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs 2005



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