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from issue no. 06 - 2005

TOGO. After the challenged presidential elections

Order reigns in Lomé

The new government is trying to get it believed that, after the clashes that characterized the last elections, order and peace now reign in the country. But the refugee drama remains, and their stories of violence and repression. In the background, the dispute between France and the US for the control of Africa

by Davide Malacaria

Above, protests against Faure Gnassingbè during the presidential elections; down, police patrolling the streets of Lomé

Above, protests against Faure Gnassingbè during the presidential elections; down, police patrolling the streets of Lomé

A controversial election, accusations of fraud and violence: some time ago in Ukraine, in analagous circumstances, the international community intervened, also forcing the course of events. But Togo is in Africa. And on that continent everything is different. With its five million inhabitants, this small plot of land looking out on the Gulf of Guinea is slowly sinking into a spiral of terror: thirty thousand civilians in flight from the militias, opposition parties ever more crushed, stories of people killed and disappeared into nowhere. Accusations that the Lomé government denies, in its attempt to make the West believe that order and peace reign there …

Thirty-eight years
of the same regime
Twice as large as Sicily, the little African State squeezed between Ghana and Benin has known one of the longest regimes in modern history. For thirty-eight years (since 1967, seven years after the proclamation of independence) the tyrannical father of the state was Eyadéma Gnassingbé. An authoritarian regime, that of Eyadéma, at times so ferocious that it drew the repeated criticism of Amnesty International and, in 1994, severe international sanctions. On 5 February 2005 Eyadèma died. On that day a sigh of relief ran through Togo. It lasted but a few hours: the military put Faure, the dead man’s son, in power. The coup did not go unobserved, drawing further sanctions against the country from the African Union and the EU. Pressure from abroad became unbearable, so much that Faure was forced to resign and new elections were called. A period of tension began that lasted until polling day on 24 April. Two days afterwards came the results: Faure and his RPT (Regrouping of the Togolese people) claimed to have won more than 60% of the votes, while his principal adversary, Bob Akitani (sole candidate of the six Parties of the so called radical opposition), was alleged to have gained no more than 38%. The conditional is required because the opposition did not acknowledge the result, it denounced it as a fraud and spoke of intimidation, and proclaimed its own candidate victor. «Voting papers were not distributed in the south, where the opposition is stronger», says Father Guido, a missionary in Togo. «I myself went to the prefecture the day before the elections and saw piles of certificates that had not been distributed. On the other hand the RPT sent children of ten years old to vote with certificates that declared them to be 35. In other circumstances they acted manu militari, sending the army to the booths to “retrieve the ballot boxes”.» The missionary is ironic about the fact that some of these gangs lost the precious boxes on the way. He is less ironic about the result of the voting: «The truth is that the elections were completely rigged. Without these interventions the RPT would never have won. However it was predictable: here the military have governed for forty years and want to continue to do so. It’s a pity that the West, France and the African Union itself continue to support these people».

Terrible months
Following on the protests of the opposition, clashes ensue throughout the country. People begin to die. According to the Togolese league for human rights, close to the opposition, the victims of the repression are more than 800. Figures denied by government sources, which limit the sad account to 58 dead. Asked about the issue, Father Andrea, another missionary, tells about having seen with his own eyes a group of demonstrators, armed with stones, dispersed by rifle fire: «These people don’t even know what rubber bullets are …». He comments: «In Aného (a town in Togo, ed) they fired on the crowd from a helicopter. Nowhere near 58 dead! There are a thousand … They take the bodies and bury them, so hiding the evidence. After the clashes, the paramilitary went on a rampage in the country: they go into homes and cause people to disappear. In Lomé there are entire quarters where there are no longer any young people to be seen. Many people have fled, abandoning everything.» They were terrible days. Foreign symbols are also a target: the Goethe Institute in Lomé was set on fire. It was in this climate that the appeal of the Holy Father arrived. After the Regina Coeli of 1 May, he declared himself «close to the dear Togolese people ravaged by painful internal fighting».
All the radio stations have been closed. A measure that also hit Radio Maria. Vittorio Viccardi, in charge of the foreign section of the Catholic radio, tells about it: «Radio Maria has been in Togo since 1977 and is the private network most listened to in the country. It has always been a thorn in the side of the regime. The father of the actual president also tried to close it down many times. At the end of April the government issued a decree that imposed the closing down of all private radio stations. The military entered our premises with machine guns … These were frenzied days, also because at the same time the country’s telephone lines were cut off – you could call abroad, but not receive – the internet network was slowed down. However on 27 May we began broadcasting again. It pleased me to see the great affection the Togolese people showed us in the days of closure, confirming the consensus our radio enjoys». The Catholic hierarchy, which between 1991 and 1993 plated a leading role during a brief season of reform that was drowned in blood, is impotent.
The street fighting lasted two or three weeks. At the end of May the situation seemed to calm down, but it is only an appearance. It seems that after the clashes militants and sympathizers with the opposition, but not only them, have become the target of a more hidden form of repression, more devious, with gangs of paramilitaries tracking down opponents at home or at work. Thus Father Guido: «They are trying to make out that everything is fine, but in fact there’s a manhunt on. There are thorough beatings going on. I too have had this experience, I told my young people: “I beg you, don’t let yourselves get killed, don’t let your lives be wasted for these people, who absolutely don’t merit it”. People disappear. Parents look for their children and can’t find them. They don’t know in what prison they have put them or whether they have killed them. The line of poor who knock at the doors of our mission gets longer every day and we don’t know what to do. We’re helpless … ».

Diplomacy and repression
The events in Togo belong in the context of the US attempt to undermine French interests in Africa, in the prospect of enlarging its own sphere of influence. So while France, under whose protective wing the regime of Eyadéma Gnassingbè prospered, rushed to acknowledge Faure, the US challenged his legitimacy. A similar position to that taken by the European Parliament, which did not wish to recognize the new president. In fact, a document certified by the EU denounced the «grave irregularities that invalidated the workingss of the vote», the «violent repression by the security forces of those who contested the fairness of the ballot», and the international community is invited to mobilize to enable the leaders of all the political forces «to take the road of national reconciliation and a genuine process of transition, in respect of the democratic expression of all the Togolese». In truth, very little has been seen of attempts to bring peace to the country. One of these was sponsored by Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo (in his role as President of CEDEAO, the Economic Community of the States of West Africa), who summoned the spokesment of the two factions to Abuja. In reality, it seems that the Nigerian president, rather than seeking reconciliation, tried in every way to force the opposition to agree to enter a government of national unity, something that the opposition, in the absence of guarantees, did not do. A more serious effort was that implemented by the President of the Commission for the African Union, Alpha Oumar Konaré, who nominated an AU representative to Togo, for the purpose of facilitating dialogue between the parties. The decision angered the Nigerian president who publicly contested the initiative as being taken without prior consultation with the other African States. A criticism that was echoed by the Nigerian ambassador to Belgium, who spoke of a superfluous nomination, coming at the moment when the Togolese crisis was on the way to resolution. The only certainty is that the Abuja summit failed. The document presented by the opposition Parties (which asked, among other things, for an end to the persecution against the opponents, the nomination of a transitional government and new elections) was rejected. At the end of the summit, Bob Akitani suffered a minor stroke and was taken to an American military hospital in France, from where he continues to lead the opposition.
Emanuel Bob Akitani, only candidate of the six opposition parties

Emanuel Bob Akitani, only candidate of the six opposition parties

Flight from Togo
Since the Abuja Faure has been making every effort to confirm abroad the image of a country returning to normality, and has succeeded, thanks to French and Nigerian support, to get the sanctions imposed by the African Union revoked. Within the country he has appointed as prime minister one of the leader of a party of moderate opposition (in reality our sources in Togo tell us, a member of the RPT ab initio), created a commission of enquiry to investigate the clashes that coincided with the elections and another commission charged with facilitating the return of refugees. All measures that left greatly skeptical the missionaries we contacted in Togo. In truth, according to them, they are ruses meant to disguise an authoritarian regime that doesn’t want to give way to democracy. Are they mistaken? It’s possible. The fact remains that in the meantime the number of refugees who have abandoned the country has risen to 30,000. A document of the High Commissariat of the United Nations for Refugees indicated that, by 17 May, there were 14,727 Togolese refugees in Ghana and 16,158 in Benin. An enormous number for such a small country. A human tide of poor people who, interviewed by Philippe Bernard, a reporter writing for Le Monde, tell of horrors and violence, of agents who go seeking undesirables at home and in their work places. Father Raymond Goudjo, a member of the Justice and Peace Commission of the diocese of Cotonou (Benin), who went to visit the refugees who had fled to his country, made the following statement on Vatican Radio on 2 June: «What we wanted to know was why so many refugees continued to arrive and their answers led us to believe that genocide is taking place, in a certain way, because the party in power is aiming at getting rid one by one of all those in opposition: the militants, but especially young people; those between thirteen and thirty-five are systematically eliminated, and their bodies made to disappear […] making it impossible to know with certainty who is alive and who is dead». Father Gérard, a local priest, affirms: «The situation is still difficult. Certainly it’s not like it was in the first days after the declaration of the results, but nobody can say what will happen tomorrow. I have the impression that the West always arrives immediately afterwards, when there is no hope left. At this moment we need help, but it isn’t arriving, everyone is silent. In the meantime, this new drama has made our people even poorer. The Church in Togo, which made its preferential choice for the poor some time ago, does what it can, but without international aid we are helpless». On 17 June the bishops of Togo promulgated «a message of comfort and of hope» in which it is asked that everything possible be done to «guarantee re-entry for all (the refugees, ed) in safety and without fear», adding: «We have fasted, prayed and made sacrifices for peace in Togo, but acts of hatred, divisions and injustice still continue». To all the Togolese, finally, the invitation that we not «despair in our prayers» and entrust ourselves to the intercession of Mary.
“Order reigns in Lomé.” This is what they are trying to get believed, those are the appearances. It remains to be seen what the phrase hides, a phrase used, for that matter, by the Nazis after the conquest of Warsaw. A last observation: the names of the missionaries and of the Togolese priest reported in the article are invented, as asked of us for reasons of prudence. A further detail indicating that something doesn’t add up. And on which it is hoped the international community will shed light. Soon.

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