Togo's president bows to pressure for election

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The Independent Online

Yielding to diplomatic and internal pressure, Togo's new President, Faure Gnassingbe, has promised to hold elections for his post within two months, ending his military-enforced succession to power following the death of his father.

"In the superior interests of the nation and of the country's constitution, I promise to hold elections within 60 days, without delay," Mr Gnassingbe said on state television. But he added that he was ruling in line with the constitution and indicated he had no intention to step down before the vote.

"I exercise provisionally the functions of president of the republic, as the constitution stipulates," Mr Gnassingbe said, in a long-awaited address to the nation. "Invested with the presidential role ... we ensure the continuity of the state pending the election of a new president of the republic." He did not indicate whether he intended to run for the post.

Togo's army announced Mr Gnassingbe's appointment to power on 5 February, hours after the sudden death of his father, President Gnassingbe Eyadema, from a heart attack. After seizing power 38 years ago, Mr Eyadema had governed as a dictator before legalising political parties in 1991. He then won three elections, although they were marred by accusations of violence and electoral fraud. He had been the world's longest-ruling leader after Fidel Castro.

His son's appointment as president and a subsequent retroactive amendment of the constitution to make the move technically legal, sparked European and US condemnation, African warnings of sanctions, and deadly clashes between protesters and security forces.

News of his concession came late yesterday, and brought no immediate reaction in the dark streets of Lome, Togo's capital. Opposition parties had pledged to renew protests today against Mr Gnassingbe's succession, raising the prospect of more violence. Clashes last weekend killed four protesters, according to government sources.

Togo has been under European and other sanctions since the early 1990s, when Mr Eyadema's security forces allegedly shot and killed an unknown number of pro-democracy demonstrators.

Mr Gnassingbe thanked the African Union and a West Africa leaders' bloc - whose most prominent member, Nigeria, led pressure on him to step aside.

Before his surprise announcement, Mr Gnassingbe had insisted that he would serve until 2008, which was when his father's term had been scheduled to end.

Earlier yesterday Togo lifted a two-week-old ban on political activity, imposed in the name of ensuring proper calm for national mourning of Mr Eyadema's death.

Mr Gnassingbe's about-face is thought to be at least partly as a response to the pressure from opposition groups including the Union of Forces for Change (UFC), whose leader, Emmanuel Akitani-Bob headed a coalition of civil rights activists in a mass protest over the past two days against what they described as a virtual "coup" by Mr Gnassingbe.

Mr Akitane-Bob won 34 per cent of the vote in the last election in Togo, held in 2003. However the results of the election, which saw Mr Eyadema returned with 57 per cent of the vote, were dismissed as a fraud by opposition parties due to the disqualification of the exiled former head of the UFC, Gilchrist Olympio.