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Togo Pays Final Respects to Longtime Leader

The streets of Lome were empty as thousands packed into the Congressional Palace to pay their final respects to the only leader most Togolese have ever known. All across the small West African country, people stayed at home, watching or listening to the live broadcast of Gnassingbe Eyadema's funeral service.

The funeral ceremony marked a momentary truce after more than a month of political unrest in Togo. Just hours after Mr. Eyadema's death, Togo's military installed his son, Faure Gnassingbe, as president sparking international condemnation and almost daily opposition demonstrations in Lome. Last month, regional block ECOWAS imposed sanctions against Togo.

Mr. Gnassingbe eventually stepped down, and the sanctions were lifted. Five regional heads of state have come to Lome for the funeral. Togolese opposition leaders have also attended.

Mr. Eyadema had been the driving force behind Togolese politics for more than 40 years when he died of a heart attack on February 5.

In 1963, the former wrestling champion took part in the military coup that ended in the death of Togo's first president, Sylvanus Olympio. Four years later, Mr. Eyadema seized power for himself, assuming the presidency, and banning opposition movements.

Very little changed in Togo during the next 30 years, leading some Togolese to view the president as a force of stability in a region plagued by repeated military take-overs.

Pro-government political leader, Claude Vondoli says the late president was a great man. He says Mr. Eyadema's first preoccupation was always the future of Togo, its youth, women, children, handicapped and even the blind.

But as times changed in West Africa, and democratically elected leaders began replacing the region's military-run governments, the regime in Lome was increasingly viewed as a political dinosaur.

It was only in the past seven years and under intense international pressure, that Mr. Eyadema allowed opposition candidates to run in presidential elections.

Mr. Eyadema easily won re-election in 1998 and 2003. But opposition parties continued to call for democratic reforms.

Opposition leader, Jean Anakpa, remembers the late president as a man who did anything to cling to power. He says he saw how Mr. Eyadema organized the elections in his favor. He says he will remember the country's longtime ruler as a man who never helped the Togolese people.

Elections to choose Mr. Eyadema's successor are scheduled for April 24.