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Togo Marks Test for African Democracy


In his first address, 39-year-old Faure Gnassingbe, Wednesday, spoke eloquently about democratic reforms. He said he would pursue efforts initiated by what he called the great father of the small nation of Togo.

He invited opposition leaders to return from exile and begin discussions on how to prepare successful elections.

The communications minister later explained these would not include a presidential vote. Mr. Gnassingbe also declined to comment on condemnations on his rise to power.

Hours later, the 15-nation Economic Community of West African states threatened sanctions if Mr. Gnassingbe did not step down.

A Senegalese human rights lawyer, Ibrahima Kane, says he is surprised at how quickly ECOWAS acted.

Mr. Kane says, "The fact that ECOWAS managed to have a meeting just three or four days after Eyadema's death, I think it's a kind of victory for those who really think that rule of law must run all West African countries."

ECOWAS also announced it would soon send a high-level delegation to Togo's capital, Lome, to force authorities to quickly organize new presidential elections.

The constitution, until it was changed Sunday, called for a vote within 60 days. The interim leader was supposed to be national assembly speaker Fabare Tchaba, but he was replaced by Mr. Gnassingbe.

Mr. Kane says for once it seems the ECOWAS grouping is trying to force one of its member countries to respect treaties it has signed.

Mr. Kane notes, "If West African heads of state follow what they've decided in many, many treaties and protocols and I'm thinking of here of the protocols on democracy and good governance adopted in December 2001 by ECOWAS. For me there is no doubt that if they use these provisions the situation

will change very quickly."

Togolese opposition movements greeted the move, saying ECOWAS was in their words finally "escaping its cocoon."

Later in the night, the mainly African organization of French-speaking nations, often seen as friendly to hard-line governments, suspended Togo from its group, saying the hand-over from father to son was

unacceptable.

This rounded off a week in which the 53-nation African Union also called the move a coup, marking unprecedented condemnation by African leaders on internal affairs of another country.

Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo, the current head of the African Union, led the charge, saying the era of coups was over. He said these threatened regional security and prosperity.

Still the pressure, even though it has come quickly, has yet to produce any results.

Togo's main opposition leader, Gilchrist Olympio, is doubtful diplomatic means alone can work. His father, Togo's founding president and independence leader, Sylvanus Olympio, was killed in a coup led by Mr. Eyadema, then a 27-year-old army sergeant, in 1963.

"I think it's an internal matter," contends Mr. Olympio. "The army ballooned from 350 at independence to reach 14-thousand now. It's always been a military dictatorship with a civilian face. You see, the underpinning of the regime has always been the soldiers. So we just have to wait and see.

Unless they find a solution, military to military in Togo, I don't think we can have any change."

This has also led to questions about whether France, the former colonial power, would intervene. Shortly after Mr. Eyadema's death, France put its troops in Togo and neighboring countries on high alert.

But asked this question on French television, Foreign Minister Michel Barnier said the time of France acting as a policeman in Africa was over.

He said France is calling for a peaceful return to constitutional order and free and fair elections.

Still, in Africa, the former colonial power continues to have huge bearing on unfolding events. In nearby Ivory Coast, the presence of French peacekeepers has effectively divided that country in two and left the north in the hands of rebels. In Sierra Leone, it was the intervention of British soldiers that ended the civil war, after months of ineffectual United Nations peacekeeping.

Initially in Togo, after Mr. Eyadema's death and Mr. Gnassingbe's appointment, French President Jacques Chirac made a vague statement saying he was a very close friend of Mr. Eyadema's and that the French government would help Togolese reunite through democratic reform.

The Senegalese human rights lawyer, Mr. Kane, says this raised questions about France's intentions.

Mr. Kane says, "In the beginning, the first statement made by the French government was not very strong, but after hearing from other countries, you know, very, very strong comments on what was going on in Togo, they decided to change the mood. And I was listening to the French minister of foreign affairs, and I think what he was saying is right. So we have to respect the constitution of Togo. And now the fact that Chirac had very good relationships with Eyadema is not relevant for this particular issue."

But besides Mr. Chirac, many other high-level French businessmen and politicians have close ties with top Togolese civilian and army leaders, leading an influential Internet chat group called the European Movement for the Defense of Democracy in Africa to be skeptical about whether

France is serious about seeking change in Togo.

In a statement this week, it said it believes France will initially condemn, but several months later invite the new military head of state to Paris with full honors.

Head of the Internet chat group, Christian Bailly-Grandvaux, says the same thing happened in the Central African Republic in 2003, after a coup led by General Francois Bozize.

He also doesn't believe ECOWAS can really make a difference.

Commentary in African media says Togo could well mark a test case, though, on whether African leaders can solve their own problems, even superseding French influence.

They have been asked to take this approach outside the French zone of influence too, in Sudan's western Darfur region, to end fighting there.

The newspaper commentary says the test case in Togo, which has a small population of just five million, could be an easier start. At the speed at which events have been unfolding, an answer could come quickly.

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