Protest over Togo poll result

Togo's opposition said yesterday it would contest an election result which returned President Faure Gnassingbe as the West African state's leader. Police fired tear gas at demonstrators. Gnassingbe, who took over after 38 years of dictatorship by his father Gnassingbe Eyadema, won 1.24 million of 2.1 million votes in Thursday's poll.

"I am ready to die," opposition leader Jean-Pierre Fabre said a few minutes before walking outside the party's headquarters before a column of anti-riot police. "We're going to make them exhaust their stock of tear gas. We cannot let this go on, otherwise they'll hang on to power for the next 200 years."

Provisional results released late on Saturday show Fabre lost to current President Faure Gnassingbe, whose 1.2 million votes gave him 60.9 percent of the vote. Fabre received 692,584 votes, or 33.9 percent.

A report released over the weekend by the European Union's observation mission did not find evidence of vote tampering or ballot stuffing as the opposition alleges, but did determine that the ruling party may have attempted to buy off voters.

The observer mission's report said EU election monitors were present in at least four different regions of the country when the ruling party handed out rice to potential voters at three to four times less than market price.

The election is only the second since the death of Eyadema Gnassingbe, who grabbed power in a 1967 coup and ruled for 38 years, only for his son to grab control upon his death. The younger Gnassingbe's victory in the recent election extends the family's rule into a 44th year and will mean the political dynasty will stay in power for nearly half a century.

Early results indicated that in the provinces where the rice was given out, voter turnout was high and people overwhelmingly voted for Gnassingbe. The district-by-district results also show that voter turnout was extremely low in opposition strongholds, such as Lome.

The opposition claims their voters were systematically intimidated and are traumatized by memories of the last election five years ago in which at least 400 people were killed in postelection violence, during which pro-Gnassingbe militias hunted down opposition voters, killing many in their own homes, according to a United Nations report and an investigation by Amnesty International.

The 57-year-old Fabre who studied economics and finance in France, says opposition voters were too afraid to go to the polls after being told that the inked fingerprint they are required to leave on the ballot would be used to trace them.

"The ruling party told our supporters that when they put their fingerprint on the ballot, they're going to be able to come and find them," said Fabre. "They gave money to buy people's consciences, there is fraud on a massive scale, we have the proof in our possession."

He said the party will present its findings to the constitutional court, which will formalize the election results next week.

At least 13 people have been arrested on suspicion of trying to incite the population to revolt since the results were announced late Saturday, said Col. Damehane Yark, commander of the special election security force. They include a close associate of an opposition candidate who handed out tracts calling on the population not to accept the results.

Togo's ruling party has denied claims that they tried to buy the vote. President Faure Gnassingbe's spokesman Pascal Bodjona on Saturday called the opposition "bad losers" after the results were announced.

He said that the rice given out in the provinces — nicknamed "Faure Rice" — was the donation of businessmen that wanted to show their support for Gnassingbe. He denied that the ruling party had outspent the roughly $100,000 allowed under the country's campaign finance law, as the EU report alleges, even thought the capital is wallpapered with Gnassingbe's enormous posters.

On some municipal walls the ruling party's posters outnumber those of the opposition 16 to 1. The opposition could only afford to buy ad space on a handful of billboards. Gnassingbe's face smiles down from billboards on nearly every major street. Some blocks have back-to-back billboards showing him in different poses.

Fabre's supporters made a human cordon around him as he led them on a protest march Sunday, which police dispersed with tear gas as they had at an earlier demonstration the day before.

Several canisters exploded next to Fabre, directly spraying his chest and face. His group took cover inside opposition party headquarters, where the boom of the exploding tear gas grenades could still be heard. At one point, tear gas streamed in through the windows of Fabre's office, stinging the eyes of the reporters inside.

"They can kill us, but we are ready," said 28-year-old Eric Mawulikokou, an unemployed cook who joined the march. "We are already psychologically and morally dead because of the regime we live in."

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